Photo from John "JB" Bandy/ Animated 1998 flair gif courtesy of Dan the Melon Man
“The barkeeper and his assistants possess the agility of acrobats and the prestidigitative skill of magicians. They are all bottle conjurors.—They toss the drinks about; they throw brimful glasses over their heads; they shake the saccharine, glacial and alcoholic ingredients in their long tin tubes. They scourge eggs and cream into froth; they send bumpers shooting down the bar from one end to the other without spilling a drop; they give change, they talk politics, tell quaint anecdotes, swear strange oaths, smoke, chew and expectorate with astonishing celerity and dexterity. I should like to be a barkeeper, if I were clever enough.
-1853 Charles Dickens | Household Words | Describing NYC Barkeeper George Sala
-1856 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
-1857 The Western Literary Messenger
Modern dictionaries define the word "Flair" as style, talent, and unique quality. For today’s general public, the term Flair Bartending conjures up images of Tom Cruise juggling liquor bottles in the 1988 film, Cocktail. There’s no doubt that this film was the spark that ignited the flame for the late twentieth-century explosion of performance bartending.
Flair Bartending Beginnings
When did flair bartending begin? No one really knows of course, but the act of juggling and performance has been recorded in many civilizations including China, India, Greece, Mexico, and Polynesia. There was even an Egyptian wall painting showing females juggling in 1700 BC. Jesters, bards, and fools were known to juggle, and the probability of such skills making its way to local village drinking houses are very high. Maybe an inspired tavern owner flipped a flagon or two or slid a goblet down the wood.
In the 1600s, the Dutch artist, Jan Steen, painted many tavern scenes. One shows a long-pour with a wine pitcher into a conical shaped glass.
What about fire? Well, if 1995 writers can add a fire-breathing character named Xena to Greek mythology then maybe a pub owner somewhere through history sparked up things with their own alcoholic fire show.
Professor Jerry Thomas is considered to be the first known and recorded flair bartender because of his showmanship while serving cocktails. He traveled with a custom made set of solid silver bar tools and was considered a true performer behind the bar. His Blue Blazer drink was lit on fire then poured back and forth creating quite a show. He is also credited with publishing the first known American cocktail recipe book in 1862.
Jan Steen painting "The way you hear it, is the way you sing it." / Public Domain / Wiki Commons
Jerry Thomas | Public Domain
1995 Xena the Warrior Princess / whoosh.org
Today, flair bartending is not about just juggling bottles. For the average bartender, flair just means a personal style, a fresh way of making something ordinary extraordinary. Why not flip a shaker tin once before you put ice into it then use both hands to pour two liquors into the shaker tin? It takes the same amount of time yet adds a certain flair, style, and showmanship. This is called "working flair" which spread in the late 1990s when exhibition bartenders were forced to develop and perfect new moves that were low risk yet had high impact and did not slow their speed of service to satisfy bar owners and managers. Flair can be the way you spin a cocktail napkin, tell a joke, pour a beer, handle a crowd, or stack shot glasses. Elements of flair can be found in many other professions as well. Have you ever been to a Japanese restaurant and watched the chef throw an egg in the air that falls and cracks perfectly on the edge of the spatula? That’s flair!
The Grandfathers of Flair Bartending
Soon time went by and the new generation took over. The fastest rising star was most certainly Christian Delpech who went on to win more than 80 competitions. You can read more about Delpech on my Famous & Influential Bartenders page.
Flair Bartending in Media
As far as I know, I am the first to write about flair bartending in my 2006 book Miss Charming's Guide for Hip Bartenders and Wayout Wannabes. In 2005, I spent a lot of time contacting people to gather the list of "The Grandfather's of Flair" that you read above. To the right are some images that I created for the book that I had on my last site.
under construction...adding more soon!