16 | Nov | 12

Richard Johnson

Extreme Bartending

The bartender’s rule number one—get the drink in the glass. All of it. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve paid for it, and I don’t want to lick it off the walls.

Unfortunately, there are still bartenders out there who aren’t interested in rule number one. Oh no. Young men who wilfully practise Extreme Bartending—or ‘flair’ as they call it — and throw liquor bottles around like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. At TGI Friday’s they have even taken to installing bounce mats—inch-thick industrial rubber flooring—to encourage their staff to experiment. Frankly, it’s not what I’m used to.

If I’m not drinking from a bottle of beer (to my mind, the perfect accompaniment to all street food) I frequent bars that are like historical re-enactments. Full of twentysomethings embracing each other’s fabulousness. So when I end up in a temple of ‘flair’, it’s a shock. Even though it’s got wipe-clean surfaces. the bartenders are card-carrying members of the Flair Bartenders’ Association, and they spill less than most. Some bars are into mixology – they take ten minutes to prepare a drink because they are squeezing fresh limes. But the flair bars are more into showmanship.

At the Roadhouse, for instance, in London’s Covent Garden, bartenders favour ‘working flair’ for their day-to-day shifts. The quick, realistic moves can be performed in a limited space. They keep ‘exhibition flair’—involving longer, choreographed routines with two, three or four bottles—for competition. It’s still in its infancy. There are stories about one competitor who tried to blow fire at the precise moment the air conditioning kicked in, and set his face alight. And another who muttered something about the judges under his breath, before he remembered he was wearing a lapel microphone.

It was Jerry ‘the Professor’ Thomas who first flaired, back in the mid-1800s. He poured flaming scotch in a long, fiery stream to make a Blue Blazer. Extreme Bartenders have been studying the physics of centrifugal and centripetal forces ever since. They still dream of ‘the big one’—a 360-degree flip on a full bottle. They try to visualize the liquid ‘forced’ to the bottom of the bottle. They ‘become’ the liquid. It’s almost transcendental. And the chicks love it. Flair it, and they will come. If I was 20 years younger, I would find that exciting. But I’m not. Just pour my drink, oaf.