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What Is Flair Bartending?

by Rob Doherty

When people imagine a flair bartender, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Tom Cruise’s character as a bottle-flinging bartender in the hit film Cocktail. He juggles bottles, does little tricks with the ice, and generally makes a good show of the usually not-so-exciting drink making process. Yes, this is an example of flair bartending in the strictest sense of the term. But from my experience, there is a wider range of what I consider to be flair bartending than simply the bottle-tossers and flame-fanatics.

Essentially, a flair bartender is any bar keep who is capable of providing extra dazzle and excitement to the customer’s drinking experience. Some do it using tricks such as juggling, some use captivating jokes and stories, but the best use a little dash of both.

Tricksters

First off let’s describe the most widely accepted definition of the flair bartender, your Cocktail juggler.

This type of flair bartender juggles bottles, mixers, and ice, toys around with flammable liquors, and even does the occasional magic trick, known in the industry as bar magic. Some of the tricks are easily learned and are fairly common place—simply bottle flips, pouring using three or more bottles at once, certain flammable drinks—while others are much more difficult, costly in the event of breaking bottles, and even dangerous if fire is involved.

Pros and cons to being a trickster

When it comes right down to it, it never hurts to have a bit of flair to your bartending style. Not only does it make the job more fun, it adds style and a dash of exciting mystery to your customers’ experience, which results on bigger tips and a larger base of regulars. Also, bartenders known for their exciting performance will oftentimes get invited to work at higher paying, more glamorous bars.

Being a full-on, wildly juggling flair bartender really isn’t all that helpful in terms of breaking into the business or landing jobs unless you’re living in fairly specific places and working in a certain kind of bar. In at strip clubs, casinos, and hot night clubs located ultra-competitive markets like Las Vegas, New York, or Los Angeles, for example, the over-the-top fair can be hugely useful. Establishments of those types in cities with a higher level of bustle are frequented for their showier aspects.

On the other hand, if you’ll be working in restaurants, hotels, or more easy going bars, the Tom Cruise flair isn’t really going to add much to your chances of getting a job and increasing your tips. Let’s put it this way—if you’ll be working in a bar where the music is too loud to speak over, flair bartending is a great skill to have. Otherwise, you’ll want to be a different kind of bartender, which I will describe in a little further down.

There really aren’t too many negatives to having flair bartending skills, the question is more about whether or not taking the time and spending the money to learn them will actually be useful.

The only possible con involves how you learn your flair. If, for example, you have learned it through an online flair bartending course and you don’t have much actual hands-on experience behind the bar, a manager might be concerned about how many bottles you’ll potentially break in the process of trying out your digitally acquired skills.

Which brings us onto our next topic…

Learning flair bartending

There are two ways to go when it comes to learning flair tricks—through a course or on the job.

There are an endless number of in-class and online courses. When it comes right down to it, an online bartending course is a waste of your money, and I would venture to call it a scam. It’s a way of taking money from people too lazy to go out and get their hands dirty.

While I am a bit dubious about in-class bartending courses in general, and I do see the value in participating in a flair class if you dream of being a to-the-hilt bottle flipper. Having a pro show you all of the tricks and help correct your mistakes is valuable when learning any physical talent. The certificate will probably be helpful if you’re applying at any of the “music-over-talking” bars.

The other way to learn flair tricks is behind the bar, both by experimenting solo and learning from a more experienced bartender. I know a variety of great tricks that were passed down to me by a manager I worked under years ago, I can dazzle my customers with ease, and I didn’t have to spend my time or money on a course. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to learn any part of bartending is on the job.

Another kind of flair bartender

While flipping bottles and setting things on fire can provide quite a spectacle, there is another kind of flair that is not generally recognized as flair bartending that is none-the-less highly entertaining and deserves the distinction. Simply put, it’s the bartender who knows how to entertain with words.

Most people go to a bar not to watch someone juggle, but to interact socially, and the bartender who can tell all the best jokes and stories, settle disputes, listen attentively, provide useful information and interesting trivia, and charm their customers is a bar keep who, in the end, will bring home the big tips. When working in any bar where you exchange just as many words as dollars, having word-flair is going to be your biggest asset.

The best bartender can combine both, deftly maneuvering bottles and tools, injecting a big of trickery, all the while engaging their customers verbally. It’s all about balance—use your hands to show your professional adeptness, and your words to charm. This is, essentially, the very definition of the “cool bartender”.

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