Mixology and flair bartending

Words by Tom Dyer

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A touchy subject I hear you say. Well it’s about time someone tackled it.

There has long been a divide between mixology and flair bartending and I'd like to set a few things straight.

Because I can tell you right now, there are no mixologists or flairers. They are just different styles used by bartenders. If you look at what both styles stand for, and what they are, then you'll realise every bartender flairs and uses mixology.

The word flair comes from "showing off". I'm not saying that we are all showoffs, but, we all have a certain amount of pride when we are working behind our bars. Don't forget there are two types of flair. Exhibition flair and working flair. One is for competitions and the other is for your everyday shift behind the bar.

Just because you are not throwing 3 bottles around, you are, however, pouring in your own stylish way, using your utensils in a specific way, or handling money and dealing with guests using your own little details. These are all types of flair.

Let's not forget Jerry "The Professor" Thomas, probably the most famous bartender to have lived, was a flair bartender. He went around the states making his signature cocktail the Blue Blazer, 'performing' it and entertaining his guests whilst doing so. That is a type of flair, possibly making him one of the first flair bartenders in the world.

Now, I know some of you will be saying, "yeah, but flair bartenders can't make a drink". Of course there are some people out there like that. They juggle away, showing off to their guests, making bad drinks and giving bad service. But you can the same thing about mixologists.

I recently posed the following questions to social media: 'what is a mixologist?' and 'what is a flair bar-tender?' They both yielded some interesting responses.

The best answer, in my opinion, was from Pepe Dioni, the Spanish President for the Association for the IBA, who, when answering 'what is a flair bartender?' simply answered; 'A Bartender'.

When I asked 'what is a mixologist?', a lot of people replied that it was a term used to gain more money, something coined by the media, but essentially a label or fancy term for a bartender. This thought seemed only to apply to the term mixologist rather than flair. Which made me question why? Flair bar-tenders and mixologists are still just bartenders. Is it because the term 'flair bartender' already has the word bartender in the title?

In the end most people seem to believe that there is no divide between mixology and flair. In fact there are no mixologists or flairers, just bartenders. Those words are just labels that bartenders have given themselves, or the media have given to bartenders to make them sound more important or highly skilled, or to get paid more. But why should we, as bartenders, be labeling ourselves as anything other than bar-tenders?

Peter Oosthuizen said it well. "If you are a doctor, per say, you will either be a general practitioner or a specialist. Either way it still boils down to you being a doctor."

To me this is a great way of saying we are all bartenders, but we specialise in different aspects of bartending.

As Philip Duff commented "a bartender should be able to do everything a mixologist can do, but a mixologist can't necessarily do everything a bartender can do: 'mixologist' describes someone who is skilled at making drinks, full stop - not crowd control or speed or accuracy or charm or hosting or bar management or anything like that."

Or Angus Wincester, "I have no problem with people calling themselves anything to get paid more or laid more, but I do have a problem when people say they are a mixologist/cocktailian/drinksmith/bar chef and not a bartender...Rather like flair, 'mixology' (the ability to mix complicated cocktails) is merely a facet of bartending (serving alcoholic drinks to paying customers). If you call yourself a 'mixologist' then you will be out of luck if people stop drinking cocktails...I think flair bartenders are often some of the most professional and dedicated bartenders I know, but again if they put too much emphasis on the flair and not the bartending, they too fall into the same trap as mixologists, plus if they choose to do exhibition flair while making drinks then they let their ego take over"

I couldn't agree more with all these statements.

So I thought back to all the times I have asked the flair bartenders around the world, or been asked my-self, what do you do for a living? The Majority of them said, myself included, I'm a bartender. And then went on to explain, that they specialise in a certain aspect of bartending; flair.

In most countries around the world the bartending profession is looked upon as something that you do while studying, or in-between jobs. So the more we label ourselves as, flairers, mixologists, liquid chefs or bar chef, we are getting away from what we really are. At the same time we're putting down the bar-tender profession ourselves, by trying to be something more established.

Let's stop with all these naive comments about flairing, or mixology and bring it back to the basics. On that note I will leave you with one question to ask yourself. If your answer is anything other than bar-tender, then you really need to re-think why you are in this profession.

When you fill out an application form, identity form or landing card, and it says what is your profession, what do you write?

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