Nightlife

Pour your heart out: The motivations and moves of Vegas’ elite flair bartenders

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Ryan Clark, of Las Vegas, competes in the “Shake It Up!” Flair Competition at the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Show, Tuesday March 31, 2015.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Forty seconds are on the clock. After backhanded pours, bottle juggling and subtle but substantial hints of modern mixology, Mike Mills takes the remaining time to trickle Perrier into three cocktail glasses, finishing each with the elixir from his shaker, which may have done more flips than Gabby Douglas at the London Olympics.

Mike Mills, of Pittsburgh, competes in the "Shake It Up!" Flair Competition at the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Show, Tuesday March 31, 2015.

The crowd swoons at each bartender’s successful juggling sequence and even applauds a few moves, but these flair bartenders—sometimes called flairtenders or extreme bartenders—aren’t performing for praise alone, with reputation and thousands of dollars at stake in Shake It Up!, the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s flair showdown.

“I didn’t crack the eggs onstage,” Ryan Clark says with regret. The veteran bartender of 20 years has been performing flair for just over a decade. He should have known. But after lending a half-dozen eggs to a fellow competitor who immediately opened them into a container, Clark decided to do the same. It would save time for the dynamic tricks that nab big points at the USBG event, held at the Nightclub & Bar convention March 30 to April 1 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. But the move lost him points, as egg cracking is a mandated part of the exhibition. The lesson? “Never make a last-minute change.”

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While flair bartending has its place in entertainment, many practitioners consider what they do a sport, what with their training regimens, discipline, drive and competition circuits. And as the Strip is lined with bars and lounges boasting skilled flair bartenders, some say Las Vegas is the best place to be for a juggling mixologist.

Manny Picon, of Miami Florida, competes in the "Shake It Up!" Flair Competition at the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Show, Tuesday March 31, 2015.

According to the Flair Bartenders’ Association, the technique began in the late 1800s, when the “Father of American mixology” Jerry Thomas lit his signature Blue Blazer cocktail on fire. What the FBA calls “efficiency of movement with a little pizzazz,” flair bartending encompasses juggling, flipping, spinning and balancing bottles, bar tools and cocktails, all while making a (hopefully) delicious concoction.

Its popularity exploded in the U.S. throughout the 1980s and early 1990s—likely thanks to the ’88 Tom Cruise classic, Cocktail, and a presence in chain restaurants like TGI Fridays and Applebee’s—leading to the formation of hundreds of competitions and governing bodies like the FBA, which operates both Advanced and Pro Flair Bartending tours.

“Flairtending is huge in Vegas,” says Dario Doimo, a flair bartender at the Linq’s Catalyst bar and the reigning USBG Shake It Up! champion. “There’s nowhere else you can make a living with flairtending than here.”

Doimo could be referencing job security in a town with a handful of flair-centric bars, or he could be speaking to the lucrative prize money available on the competition circuit.

Will Izaza competes in the "Shake It Up!" Flair Competition at the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Show, Tuesday March 31, 2015.

“There’s a lot of money in the sport,” says Clark, adding that he’s seen competitions with $25,000 in prizes. Doimo alone won $5,000 at Shake it Up!, along with an invitation to the International Bartenders’ Association’s World Cocktail Championship in Sofia, Bulgaria. The contest is one of many around the globe, from international meets like the Roadhouse World Flair contest in London (Clark considers it the most revered, with monthly qualifying wins necessary to compete) to small, local contests held at neighborhood bars. Las Vegas used to be home to one of the sport’s biggest competitions, the Legends of Bartending, until the event came to a close in 2011. “You were top dog” if you won Legends, according to Clark, who says even finalists could consider themselves “in good company.” Doimo, an Italian native, says he was hired on the spot at the contest by the owner of Kahunaville, who ended up sponsoring his visa to work in the States. Doimo went on to travel to competitions with Kahunaville’s flair team, sometimes up to four times a month. He says he currently has more than 40 titles to his name, and took home $12,000 in winnings at the 2008 Legends contest—his winningest championship to date.

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Dario Doimo, of Las Vegas, competes in the "Shake It Up!" Flair Competition at the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Show, Tuesday March 31, 2015.

The familiar funk of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” hits, and it’s game time for Doimo. Beginning with a juggling act of Finest Call bottles, he immediately has the audience’s eyes. Soon he’s balancing a bottle on his elbow, and then triple flipping it into the air, clapping to the funky beat in between. After a shaker-glass catch behind the back he does a series of shaker stalls, balancing the cocktail mixer on the back of his hand at each pause of the music. The crowd cheers and the soundtrack shifts to the Drake/ILoveMakonnen collabo “Tuesday,” with just seconds left when three martini glasses of Doimo’s tangerine-hued, Don Q rum libation Q the Passion are served to those cocktailing-in-judgment.

While Clark says rules and regulations are similar at the varied competitions, there are slight differences—from the ounces of liquid in the bottles to presentation mandates (like those pesky, uncracked eggs) and the nuances of points scored or lost for things like bottle drops and drink spills. There are also two distinct styles of flair, working and exhibition, the latter involving bottles with pre-set amounts of liquid. Working flair is supposed to model a real-world working situation, hence the differences in pours.

Clark says that either way, the strategy is to play to your advantages; read the rulebook and score maximum points using your best skills. Mixology principles have become a more prevalent part of contest rules in recent years, according to Doimo and Clark, who were competitors at the invite-only USBG event, which judged participants 50 percent on flair and 50 percent on mixology. “They want to see a smooth, elegant routine, putting the drink together,” Doimo says—and that’s exactly what he delivered to bring home another championship.

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Colby Good, of Las Vegas, competes in the "Shake It Up!" Flair Competition at the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Show, Tuesday March 31, 2015.

Bottles in the air and music blaring, flairtending is alive and well at Vince Neil’s Eat Drink Party. Clark has conquered cocktail cartwheeling on the stage and at work, and he’s in his element at the Circus Circus watering hole. From flipping a shaker to performing a bottle stall on top of his head, after a decade, Clark does it all with an easy grin.

The drinks have to taste right, but especially in Vegas, the spectacle of the mixing is paramount. Where does a bartender pick up such tricks? Clark says he started online, though he concedes that in 2004 there weren’t many outlets—websites, blogs or otherwise—devoted to flair bartending. Today, a quick Google search returns dozens and dozens of instructional YouTube videos, one of the many ways flair bartenders train today. While Doimo admits it’s the most common way for aspiring talents to acquire new skills, he believes the method promotes stealing moves. “This sport is about being original.”

USBG Shake It Up! Flair Bartending Competition

There are more formal ways to pick up its secrets. Some hospitality programs offer training in flair bartending, like the Rio’s, and fundamentals can be learned at schools like the Las Vegas Flair Academy. Clark mentions a spirit of collaboration, describing the flair community as a “family” that often gets together to demonstrate skills. A flair bartender might post about a “yard day” on Facebook, inviting others to meet at a local park to practice their mixology moves. “You get to learn and get better,” Doimo says.

But these guys don’t seem to do what they do for the thrill of competitions or prize money. With smiles on their faces and a passion for the pour, it’s obvious they enjoy their work—and their sport.

“It makes my job fun,” Clark says. “I get to entertain my guests, and entertain myself.”

Finding flair

Five spots to watch your drink order become a pour performance

Carnaval Court The bottle-flipping bartenders are just part of the entertainment lineup at the center-Strip open-air nightspot. In between watching awesome shaker-stall sequences and bottle juggling, partiers can play a round of blackjack and hit the dancefloor to DJs and live bands daily. Harrah’s.

Looking for some excitement with your elixirs? Carnaval Court is one of the city's flair-centric bars.

Kahunaville The Island-style bar and restaurant boasts a flair staff of seven, some with competition championships under their belts. So stick around for the awesome alcohol acrobatics—or stay for the hourly free shots and LuWow show. We dare you to ask for a Miami Vice with flair. TI.

Vince Neil’s Eat Drink Party The Motley Crüe musician’s eat-and-drinkery took over the space formerly occupied by Rock & Rita’s, another Strip-side destination known for its flair bartenders. Now those looking for some cocktails with a side of pizzazz can saddle up to a stool at the Party Bus Bar outside. Circus Circus.

Catalyst The tricks flair bartenders perform aren’t the only inventive things you’ll see at this center-Strip destination, as the menu features interesting concoctions (barbecue sauce and vodka, anyone?) and a wide variety of breakfast drinks. Plus, the location is perfect for some Strip-side people-watching. Linq.

Fuel Bar One of the only bars at the new Grand Bazaar Shops at Bally’s is also one of the Strip’s flair bartending destinations. So in between luxuriating at Lush Cosmetics and having a bite to eat at Del’s Lemonade, grab yourself a daiquiri and enjoy the show that comes with it. Bally’s.

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