Where Have All the Flair Bartenders Gone?

Though the days of Cocktail-style shaker-tossing are over, flair bartending lives on. Drew Lazor on what "flair" looks like post-cocktail renaissance, and the new generation of bartenders working it into their repertoires today.

Shingo Gokan at Angel's Share

John Bandy was bored. It was the early ‘80s, and he was the low barman on the totem pole at a TGI Fridays in Los Angeles. His more-tenured coworkers, mostly aspiring actors who viewed their day jobs with disdain, had eaten up all the good shifts, leaving Bandy with scraps. He had to fill the time somehow.

“I got tired of saying, ‘Hello, how are you, what would you like?’” Bandy recalls. So he began messing around, tossing around bottles, tins and other tools in a flashy manner. Customers ate it up, so he started practicing at home, chucking metal and glass up toward the ceiling while standing on his couch cushions for safety.

He’d soon develop a repertoire. Dampening his fingertips with condensation from the side of a stainless steel ice machine, he taught himself how to Frisbee-toss beverage napkins in front of guests with ninja-like precision. He’d wow smokers by shuffleboard-sliding a matchbook, with a single match already burning, across the bar top for them to light up. Catching a flying shaker tin behind his head like it was a Magic Johnson no-look pass? “That was all mine,” he recalls. Bandy wasn’t the only bartender doing this stuff at the time, but he was certainly one of the first. Before long, we’d start referring to these flourishes as “flair.”

Bandy is perhaps best-known for teaching Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown everything they knew for 1988’s Cocktail, still one of the best-known movies about bartending, for better or worse. That gloriously over-the-top Long Island Iced Tea routine set to “Hippy Hippy Shake”? “That was my groove!” he says fondly.

The film helped spread flair across the country and, eventually, the world, which Bandy would see much of over eight years, hosting training seminars in 30 different countries. But, “like a dance craze,” Bandy says, “it had to end somewhere.” Just as tastes in liquor shift over time, tastes in nightlife change, too. In flair’s mainstream heyday, from the late ‘80s to mid-’90s, every relevant bartender had the moves to impress their crowds. But this would systemically fade to make way for the eventual classic cocktail revival. (Funny, since the lauded “Professor” Jerry Thomas was as well-known as a showman as he was a bartender.) Now in his late 50s, Bandy retired from drink-making a decade ago and currently works as a Hollywood set builder and prop maker. “Tricks are for kids,” he jokes.

Shingo Gokan at Angel's Share

And yet, flair lives on despite wholesale changes to the business. It has evolved into a blustery performance art all its own, in heavy rotation throughout Europe and in serious party towns like Las Vegas. And it’s recognized as a competitive platform, with organizations like the Flair Bartenders’ Association overseeing elaborate international contests. But, perhaps more importantly, flair has subtly influenced craft cocktail bartenders of a certain generation, who have extracted elements of the discipline’s polish, precision and showmanship and applied them to their own methods.

Bobby Heugel, owner of Houston’s Anvil and Nightingale Room, cut his teeth under the tutelage of a flair bartender, who herself came up in the heyday Bandy helped kick off. “If you’ve been bartending anywhere from 12 years on, I’d say you touched an era of bartending that was very flair-centric,” says Heugel. “You had to learn how to do these things if you wanted to be a bartender.”

Starting off doing things the “hard” way, Heugel says—giving a bottle a cheeky aerial twist before pouring or whipping out shakers like one of those crazy cup-stacking children, for example—gave him the confidence to become a better, faster bartender overall. Think of parents who teach their kids how to drive on a manual, knowing that an automatic will be a breeze if they can master stick shift first.

“What’s interesting when you start from that perspective is that it never goes away,” says Heugel, who often notices his hands working faster than his brain, particularly when the bar gets three-deep at the clubby, high-volume Nightingale. “Once you learn how to flair, once you have this muscle memory, it’s hard to not have that be part of how you do the job.”

Shingo Gokan, head bartender at New York City’s Angel’s Share, is well-known for his detail-oriented style, an approach dictated by polished Japanese bartending tradition. But he began his career aspiring to master Western flair. In his early 20s he was so enamored by the skill of flair bartenders that he enrolled in classes in his native Tokyo; in between surfing runs, he’d practice his bottle-tossing on the beach, with the sand acting as a natural safety net. “Trying to learn it was so hard,” he says. “Flair is a combination of small movements, and each movement is very sophisticated. I really respect it a lot.”

Gokan would eventually take his career in a different direction, but he still gleaned lessons from those early days. Call him flair-adjacent: He’s conscious of even the smallest movements behind the bar, from the way he handles bar spoons to the personalized manner in which he executes a hard shake. At Speak Low, his bar in Shanghai, Gokan uses a venencia—the long, flexible rod with a tiny cup at the end designed to sample sherry straight from the cask—for dramatic drink presentations.

“I’m always trying to make a routine, showing [it off for] the customers,” he says. “Even if you’re not flipping or spinning a bottle, you’re still trying to let the customer enjoy. I think that’s the biggest similarity [between flair and conventional bartending].”

Shingo Gokan at Angel's Share

As the owner of 320 Main in Seal Beach, California, Jason Schiffer always hopes to strike up chats about cocktail culture with an Orange County crowd that tends to skew a bit more conservative with their requests. “I use flair to get people to ask questions,” says Schiffer. “[Once they say], ‘What is it that you’re making over there?’ That’s when I get into the details.”

Schiffer, like Heugel and Gokan, was immersed in flair early in his career, working under flair legends Ken Hall and Alan Mays at VooDoo in Las Vegas in the late ‘90s. Both stressed that the young bartender form a solid base of knowledge before getting into all the cool tricks. He soon picked up on the fact that flair, while very showy, isn’t exclusively for show—it can also make you a more precise bartender, contradicting the belief that it’s strictly a showboat pursuit.

“When you can put your movements together in an organized way, it’s more like a choreographed dance,” says Schiffer. “You become faster behind the bar.” When a drink order comes in, he says, “I’ve already worked out in my head how I’m going to do it. It’s not something that I have to choose every single time I make those moves.”

Schiffer, a lifelong student of martial arts, was quick to draw comparisons between his passion and his profession—both demand the mastery of one’s movements. Same goes for Schiffer’s friend Chris Bostick, who owns Half Step in Austin, Texas. “It’s the whole idea of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do—every motion is sacred,” says Bostick, whom Schiffer credits with coining the term “micro-flair,” embellished movements performed in tight windows by the hands. Think of it as the slick closeup magic companion to conventional flair’s big-budget Copperfield tricks. “It’s the amount of steps you can eliminate while being as efficient as possible.”

As big a flair advocate as he is, Schiffer understands why some more self-serious bartenders have looked down their noses at the practice. “For a while, there was a lot of shunning of the flair crowd, which I get—you’re trying to start this new thing, making good drinks, so you have to put down the other style, which is more about a show,” he says. “Well, we know how to make good drinks now, so what else can we add to it?”

That seems to sum up the state of flair’s place within the contemporary craft cocktail world; the days of cheesy Tom Cruise in an aloha shirt are way over, but the spirit of flair and its innate ability to engage and interest the guest are more alive than ever. And that’s really what bartending is all about.

“Whether it’s serving someone a fancy Manhattan or throwing a bottle in the air, bartenders are entertainers,” says Heugel. “That’s what we’re supposed to be.”

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