[Nights on the Circuit]

Flipping sides on flair

Is flair dead? Or if not, should it be?

A three bottle stall during the 11th Annual Legends of Bartending competition at LAX.
Photo: Ati Grinspun Photography

This is going to be hard for me to say: Flair … is … dead. Or, if it is not, maybe it should be. Like spandex, it had more than its fair share of time on the radar, 1990 to 2005, or so the experts tell me. And believe me, I loved it! But today, I can still only tolerate a certain amount of working flair with my cocktail. Try the bottle-flipping competition-style flair on me now and … well, as a friend recently said: “Just gimme my damned drink!” Okay, now that I have your attention—and possibly have earned myself eternal cocktail damnation—please allow a girl to explain.

Flair bartending, as I’ve known it and loved it in Las Vegas, is no more.

There’s been a divergence. The integration of good working flair with the showmanship of competition flair or “show flair” is no more. The last vestiges of flair can be found at Carnaval Court, Shadow Bar, Kahunaville and small outposts where former Club Rio employees still flip the occasional bottle for shits and giggles when it gets slow. (Full disclosure: I managed Shadow Bar and Club Rio, both flair venues.)

Or so I believed when I got word that Canadian flair instructor Scott Young of Extreme Bartending would be in Las Vegas last week for a convention. I requested an audience and prepared to pounce on him for being a dinosaur.

“When I think of flair,” I told Scott as we sat at Shadow Bar, me with an Old Fashioned, him with a beer and a packet of Drinkin’ Mate tabs, “only four things come to mind: Argentina, Japan, Las Vegas and Florida.” He handled my obviously jaded views with incredible aplomb. “It’s not just throwing a bottle,” he responded calmly, peppering our conversation with plenty of jokes, bar tricks and riotous anecdotes.

Via Extreme Bartending, Scott teaches what he calls “intelligent working flair,” not competition flair. He doesn’t compete—he rarely ever did—and doesn’t even judge competitions any longer. His only goal is to help bars that have selected themselves for flair to incorporate easy moves into their regular drink-making routines, hopefully increasing revenues, tips and entertainment in the process. Through three-to-seven-day seminars, with his 10-person staff and his 135-page manual, Scott keeps his focus on “business first, sport second.”

A sporty-looking fellow himself, 36-ish and with that floppy, middle-parted surfer ’do, Scott appropriately inquired, “Do you know anything about surfing?” Nope. He explains that until Kelly Slater came along, surfers were divided between the old-school purists and the new-school skateboarding experimentalists. Like Slater, “I want to be the guy who brings it together,” he said.

To ascertain the state of flair in Las Vegas, I consulted a few flair luminaries. Confirming flair’s divergence, Legends of Bartending competition founder Ken Hall proclaimed, “Deep in my heart, I love flair …,” but “there’s hardly any guys out there that can do flair and pump out drinks at the same time … The days of quick, fast [working] flair? Those days are gone.”

BarMagic of Las Vegas’ Tobin Ellis brilliantly pointed out that certain elements of mixology are working flair in their own way. Unknowingly agreeing with his former colleague Ken, Scott himself stated, “I think it’s morphing into two different things: competitions … and working flair.” So we’re agreed.

Flairing away at our next stop, Carnaval Court’s Robyn Closson mixed up yard drinks as tourists whipped out camera phones and video cameras like they’d never seen flair before. They very well might not have. “The big picture is bigger than that. Look at those smiles! And it doesn’t have to take that long [to make a drink with flair].” And with just a hint o’ Canadian: “That’s what I think a-boat that.” Scott spends at least 50 percent of his time traveling and has compiled a list of 17,000 recipes since 1993. “It still interests me. I still love it,” he emphasized. “It’s been an interesting journey thus far.”

That pretty much sealed the deal for me: Flair lives. For those still discovering it or who have found their niche in its arms, flair is fresh. I squashed my jaded little brain-monster, let it go right there at Carnaval Court, and headed off to a mixology bar to watch a little of my own preferred form of flair, the Absinthe ritual, the orange zest flamed over a Negroni. Time to evolve.


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