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Welcome to the World of Elite Flair

February 15, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

art: Nick Hensley

Cocktails

Welcome to the World of Elite Flair

February 15, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

art: Nick Hensley

Only a select few have the dedication, dexterity and originality it takes to succeed.

With first-place finishes in over 85 competitions, Tom Dyer is one of the most decorated flair bartenders in the world—a Steph Curry figure in the realm of spinning, twirling and tossing barware, all in service of crafting the most theatrical Long Island Iced Tea to ever land on a bar top. Over his 20-year career, Dyer has witnessed the evolution of the craft from chain restaurant shtick to lucrative competitive events held in arenas packed with raucous crowds. While flair bartending was on the decline in the 2010s, recently the practice has witnessed an unexpected surge on social media and even in top-tier cocktail bars—albeit in a slightly modified form.

“When I started [in 2001], you paid the entrance fee and they’d let anyone on stage,” says Dyer, a U.K.-born, Portugal-based flair bartender with two Roadhouse World Flair championships and 12 U.K. Flair bartender championships under his belt. Dyer began his bartending career in London when he was 18 years old, at a Bennigan’s (the Monte Cristo–serving Irish pub chain), where his manager passed along a few flair skills he could occasionally use to liven things up. The tricks, such as juggling bottles, were good for charming customers, and sometimes led to extra tips. That was incentive enough for Dyer to search out what the “pros” were doing.

In November 2000, after attending his first competition as a spectator, the Roadhouse Grand Final—a Super Bowl–like event held annually at the eponymous London bar, and generally considered the most prestigious flair championship—Dyer became obsessed. A quick study, by August 2002 he was crowned the U.K. Flair champion. He was ascending to the top of the competition circuit as the glory days of elite flair bartending were just beginning.

“From 2003 to 2008, it was insane,” Dyer recalls. There was a small handful of professional flair bartenders traveling around the world, entering two to three competitions per month, occasionally pulling in first-prize checks for as much as $25,000; some earned more than $100,000 per year. At competitions like the Roadhouse Grand Final in London, OlyBet Flairmania in Latvia, or any of the other World Flair Association Grand Slam events across the globe, there might be 1,000 spectators packed close to the stage, hooting and hollering as music pounded and bartenders showcased their choreographed routines.

Of course, back then, before the rise of Facebook and Instagram and even YouTube, flair practitioners had to find upcoming events by word of mouth, and learn new moves through even more costly methods.

“We had one DVD, Legends of Bartending 2002, which we paid $200 for with shipping,” says Tomek Małek, a partner in The Roots Bar in Warsaw, Poland. Back in the early 2000s, Małek and his fellow bartenders at a popular local nightclub, Ego, would watch the scratched DVD after finishing their shifts at 6 a.m., cribbing moves from flair pioneers like Christian Delpich, a ponytailed, soul-patch-sporting whirling dervish of behind-the-back flips and around-the-neck catches.

Meanwhile, south of Warsaw, in Bielsko-Biała, Marek Posłuszny was working at Karczma Rogata, an old-school Polish restaurant which primarily served beer, earning 4 Polish złoty (about $1) an hour. He’d try to liven things up with flair moves inspired by tricks he’d acquired as a longtime basketball player. When a top international competition came to Bielsko-Biała in 2004, his boss encouraged him to enter to represent their restaurant.

“Somehow, even though that was my first competition, the judges appreciated my unique moves borrowed from basketball,” Posłuszny says. He finished in third place in the junior’s division—a category for new flair bartenders—and earned $50. “And that was enough—I was completely hooked and decided to focus on that for the next few years.”

Flair, which once occupied its own universe utterly divorced from the world of craft cocktails, is crossing over into the realm of mixology.

Poland, then as it does today, had a strong flair community built around the Independent Flair League, which held organized competitions four times a year. Małek labels this late-aughts period the “golden era” of flair, when just about every week he could find a local competition, many of which he won, and the prize money was ample. The two men, who by now had become friends and training partners, saved their money and began traveling the world for major international competitions hosted by the nascent World Flair Association and Flair Bartenders’ Association. “I never expected that one day I’d be able to travel to Japan and Las Vegas for flair,” says Małek.

The negative, of course, was that they were now facing a murderer’s row of flair bartenders, including Dyer, Frenchman Nicolas Saint-Jean, the Argentinian Delpich, and his younger brother Rodrigo.

For the next decade, the two Poles would practice nonstop, 10 hours a day, honing the same moves over and over again. It finally paid off for Małek in 2008 at the Nations Flair Challenge in Las Vegas, where he presented an array of backhand tosses, crisscrossed catches and bottles bounced up and down his arms with stunning control. He ultimately bested 115 competitors in the pro division to claim his first major championship and $15,000 in prize money. Posłuszny would take a little longer to land his first major title, but when he started winning, he won big—scoring world championship titles in 2011 at the International Bartenders Association (IBA) World Championship in Warsaw and then, a few days later, at the Bacardi World Flair Championship in Monaco. For the next several years, Małek and Posłuszny won just about every major title. Małek, who won Roadhouse three years in a row from 2009 to 2011, attributes it to the duo’s dedication to technical mastery.

 

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Nearly a decade later, however, as social media has exploded and more people have entered the game, being technically sound is no longer enough to take home the prize. If you want to win competitions, you need to differentiate yourself with signature choreography. “When you are doing a competition, you need to come up with your own style and tricks,” explains Małek. “Most of my moves come into my head after three, four, five hours of nonstop practicing, sometimes by mistake.” For instance, his Predator move—meant to look like the bladed extraterrestrial trophy hunter—was adapted from an existing move simply by adding an extra bottle.

“In a world of copycats, being more original puts you heads and tails above your competitors,” says Dyer, who has created signature moves such as the Helicopter on the Tin and The Cog, a gunslinging thumb roll flip.

Increasingly, flair, which once occupied its own universe utterly divorced from the world of craft cocktails, is crossing over into the realm of mixology. A decade ago, throwing four shakers in the air while making a Vodka Red Bull could win a competition; today, Posłuszny travels with his own fresh fruit and dry ice to assure his cocktails are up to snuff. In fact, the quality of the cocktail, as tasted by a panel of bartender judges, typically comprises 45 percent of the total score in competition.

“My last IBA title [in 2016] I only won because of cocktail—because I fucked up the routine,” explains Posłuszny. Meanwhile, Małek’s bar, The Roots, which incorporates what he calls “working” flair, was named a top “Discovery” on The World’s 50 Best Bars list, owing to its high-caliber beverage program featuring offbeat takes on classics like the Peanut Colada (rum, pineapple, peanut butter and hazelnut) and vodka-focused cocktails, befitting the country’s national spirit.

“The days of saying, ‘This is a flair bar,’ ‘That’s a cocktail bar,’ are over. You will see guys using flair techniques in Top 50 bars eventually,” predicts Małek. Indeed, one of the biggest shifts over the last decade has been the dissolution of competition flair, which Dyer says “died on its ass” after the recession of 2008. Prize money is down and, unless you place in the top 3, the cost of travel likely exceeds any potential winnings. The flair mecca of Roadhouse even closed last summer, dealing a major blow to the global flair community. As a result, bartenders who once exclusively worked the flair circuit have gradually returned to positions behind the stick at a number of cocktail bars.

The days of saying, ‘This is a flair bar,’ ‘That’s a cocktail bar,’ are over. You will see guys using flair techniques in Top 50 bars eventually.

Flair bartenders are quick to note that their talents still translate to good money, the big paydays just exist outside of structured competitions. Małek, for example, flaired at the first-class lounge bar aboard an Emirates Airbus in 2019, while Posłuszny flairs in brand videos for companies like Angostura, for which he is an ambassador. And the practice is still big business on reality TV, especially in central and eastern Europe. Mirza Merdžanić, a top Balkan flair bartender, hosted a primetime Saturday night show, Cocktail Time, on Bosnian television, becoming a national celebrity in the process. Russian flair world champion Alexander Shtifanov has appeared on both Romania’s Got Talent and Ukraine’s Got Talent. Małek and Posłuszny, meanwhile, have appeared on Beat the Best, a French television show, and made the semifinals on Poland’s Got Talent with their tandem performance.

“I remember we had 6 million people watching us live—that’s 20 percent of the country,” says Posłuszny, who appeared on the front cover of Kronika Beskidzka, Bielsko-Biała’s local weekly, in July 2018.

Dyer retired from competition in 2015 and today runs five locations of the European Bartender School as well as Flair Camp, a weeklong bartenders training getaway, while producing videos for his YouTube instructional channel and selling custom-designed merchandise, including autographed flair practice bottles, on his website. Meanwhile, Małek, who retired in 2016, and Posłuszny also run their own bartending school, Flair Factory. They’re training the next generation of flair bartenders for a bar world unlike the one they dominated two decades before.

“What we’re seeing a huge influx of these days is, to use a term, ‘craft flair,’” says Dyer. Like Małek uses at The Roots, it’s a form of flair defined by more subtle touches and nuanced ways to pick up a shaker or jigger and manipulate them in your hands. This panache is great for getting invited to bartend lucrative private events, says Dyer, because “everyone wants the glitz and wow factor.”

He notes, however, that this phenomenon exists largely in eastern Europe, which remains one of the few hotbeds for elite flair bartending, though in recent years Grand Slam events have been held in Mexico and Mumbai.

“In the States,” explains Dyer, “people are not encouraged to do flair, because tips are already a part of the culture. So you’d have a bartender going, ‘Why would I throw a bottle behind my back, when I make $600 a night anyway?’” Elsewhere, however, flair bartenders will often deploy craft flair throughout their entire service, developing unique personal styles, even if they have no intention of ever competing on a stage. The practice is slowly seeping into stateside service, nonetheless. If you’ve ever seen a bartender balance multiple jiggers between their fingers or strain a cocktail into a glass from great heights, you’re seeing working flair.

Even as the golden era of competition flair has faded, and despite widespread closures due to COVID-19, flair itself only seems to be growing across the globe. There may be fewer events, each with limited prize money—perhaps only $2,000 for first prize—yet 100-spot competitions fill up within minutes of being posted online. “I think flair bartending at the extreme, I think the glory days might be done, I hate to say it,” says Dyer. “But flair can still bring such opportunity.”

Indeed, flair bartending is gaining traction on social media, on Instagram and especially on TikTok, where #flairbartending currently has 182 million views; Posłuszny, meanwhile, regularly garners millions of views for his video posts. And if that’s any indication, it seems as if the future of flair bartending might exist not in packed arenas with techno blaring across an audience of thousands, but on pocket-sized phone screens transmitting to millions.

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