Tuesday, March 7, 8:30 p.m. Bottles fly through the air, bouncing off all manner of body parts like rubber. Awed silence gives way to deafening cheers as a full-pint glass is skillfully hoisted above a bartender's face with naught but a broomstick between him and a trip to the emergency room. Despite the heat inside Ra, goose bumps race up my arms, and my legs twitch with every near-miss, drop or spill. Flair bartending is not for the faint of heart and neither is being a flair groupie.
I chide my male friends for their mental catalog of sports stats, yet here I am discussing with a flair newbie the chances of Rodrigo Delpech taking the title two years in a row, as his brother Christian did before him a record four times. I expound on the differences between European and South American-style flair (less juggling and more "working" flair in European). I tell of the upsets, triumphs and heroes. Legends of Bartending VIII—now that's something I can geek-out about!
For all of its eight years, Legends has been meticulously organized by High Spirits Enterprises President-Owner Ken Hall. Hall once tended bar at Walt Disney World's Pleasure Island. I too spent time at the park's Beach Club and Mannequin's, though not exactly legally; working there at the age of 19 was both my first real taste of freedom and the first time I saw flair bartending. I couldn't have imagined that six years later I would be managing Shadow, the flair bar in Caesars.
For the second year in a row, Ra has hosted this two-day contest, a gauntlet that puts hopefuls through grueling accuracy and speed tests before they even flip one bottle in the exhibition round. This year, 63 people descended upon the club, representing 11 countries and territories. "The level of competitor has gone up tremendously since 1999," Hall says. Up to that point, flair bartending wasn't exactly a wide-spread notion: "It was not international at all." That all changed at Legends I, when a competitor from the Netherlands took second place. Success has been in the timing; Hall established an international event at the same time the sport went global. This year, Japan has sent 11 competitors, four of whom have made it to the finals.
"Flair's gotten very big over there [in Japan]," Hall says. Much of the reason flair's gospel has spread so far can be attributed to dedicated sponsors like Skyy's John Niekrash, who has been on board since Legends IV. "He really is one of the reasons flair is where it is today," says Hall.
Using the sponsored vodka, finalists make a Midori Kamikaze, a Skyy Vanilla Tuaca Lemon Drop and a Finest Call Sponsor Special with all the finesse, ingenuity and acrobatic skill they can muster while paying attention to things like garnishes, glassware and taste. Compared to other contests, Hall says, "Legends is a lot more strict and structured," not to mention, it's also invitation-only. "As bartending competitions go, it's the most prestigious. You have to be good all around."
"Japan is the new Argentina," an onlooker observes as Tomohiro Maeda steps forward to accept his third-place trophy and $3,000 prize. Nicolas Antivero, representing Tampa, Florida, beams in second place with $4,000, right behind reigning champion Rodrigo Delpech, who bashfully accepts his $6,000 check and dedicates the futuristic trophy to his wife. The night closes with the mysterious announcement that four-time champ Christian Delpech, might return from his retirement from Legends. "I think he'll come back," Hall says. "I think he misses it. I think there's a group of people who would like to see Christian compete again." I just think I hear a collective "there goes the neighborhood" from next year's would-be competitors.Like Christmas, New Year's Eve, and Super Bowl, the second the party is over, it's time to begin planning for next year.
"There will definitely be a day when I'll compete again," Hall muses, "but for right now I'm focused on opening a High Spirits Bartending Academy, hopefully within the next year." Better start practicing your stalls, misdirects and bumps now, because when that happens, the competition's bound to get as stiff as the drinks.