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The Secret Life of a Flair Bartender

"I would never tell any employers about my flair, or that I’d attended competitions," says Boston bartender Will Isaza, who knows that juggling bottles is not always respected by his colleagues in the industry.
Photo via Flickr user npmeijer

If he's not donning two thirds of a three-piece suit with an apron as a functional accessory, then he's sleeveless, working on his flair fitness on a grassy lawn, preparing for a bartender's battle. Will Isaza, bar manager of Boston's Fairsted Kitchen, is doing more than your average drink-slinging, and it's taken nearly eight years of what he calls "yard-day practice" to do it.

The 24-year-old is a rising star in the flair bartending community. But if you approach him on the subject, he'll often reply with a restrained attitude—arguably a tactic to evade the preconceived notion that he's some wannabe Tom Cruise of Cocktail, ready to show off his rad juggling skills while making you a frothy, garnish-laden drink.

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Modern flair bartending was devised by the management of TGI Friday's in the mid-80s as a way of allowing their bartenders to "express" themselves freely, while also putting on a show for their patrons. The first flair bartender, however, was Jerry "The Professor" Thomas, who spouted fiery pours of whiskey out of kettles in the late 19th century.

'My hands are scarred from years of practice and shattered bottles.'

As flair became popularized by Cocktail, it carried a reputation among serious drinkers as a pastime for bumbling clowns who "just throw shit around behind a bar," Isaza says. It's these clichéd and cornball conceptions that he's trying to change.

Having worked in the hospitality industry since his teens, Isaza knows his way around a bar and has an identifiable ease with guests. "As a bartender, we do more than serve drinks—we serve people. Flair has kept that notion at the forefront since its beginning," he tells me. At 17, Isaza and his older brother Moe came across flair when a guest of Moe's on an entertainment cruise asked him why he wasn't flipping bottles—why he wasn't flairtending. And so the YouTube tutorials began.

"It's impossible to start flair with a hit-the-ground-running kind of attitude," Isaza says. "I started flipping a single jigger or a single bottle repeatedly until I couldn't fail. And then I learned a new move. And I did that again, and again, and again." For those of us who can't even juggle a few oranges, the concept of tossing upwards of five 750-milliliter bottles of hooch multiple feet into the air, catching them behind your back, bouncing one off your elbow, and then pouring from an insane height into a two-ounce jigger to make a Negroni seems like an impossible feat. It's exactly that allure of impossibility that makes flair seem like a kind of acrobatic circus act.

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Many people who don't understand the art of flair quickly dilute that allure, making it a kind of flip-cup joke that undermines just how skilled and dedicated flairtenders are. "There are strict guidelines, time restraints, certain bottles you have to use depending on who is sponsoring the competition. It's set to music, there are judges and correspondents, crowds of people. It takes hours of practice a day, months in advance—flair is most definitely a sport, and a dangerous one," Isaza says. "My hands are scarred from years of practice and shattered bottles."

There are national and international competitions for flairtenders, like that of the IBA (International Bartenders Association) World Competition, the World Bartender Championship, and statewide events in flairtending hubs like Las Vegas and Miami, each set with qualifier and finals rounds, score cards, and more. To be a competitive flairtender is to be a competitive athlete, which Isaza was while growing up. But it also takes stage presence. The ability to command an audience while pleasing the judges and meeting certain standards of flair is something Isaza believes you can't practice. But most of all, "it has to look pretty."

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Functional or working flair can be found in Isaza's everyday routine, no matter how small the move may be. "Exhibitional flair is what everyone assumes I do behind my bar. That's crazy," Isaza explains. Giant moves, like tossing bottles into the air, and fast-paced, dancerly maneuvers are for the stage and the judges. But his behind-the-bar flair is a direct reflection of his intentions to please his guests, ensuring that their bargoing experience is the most enjoyable it can be.

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"I recently heard the term 'micro-flair' from a fellow bartender, and I thought to myself, What the fuck is that? He was using the word 'micro' in regards to smaller, less elaborate moves," he tells me. "To use the term micro-flair if you're not in the flair community feels like a generalized assumption that flair is excessive and doesn't serve a purpose, or takes too much time. Sometimes the moves make drink-building faster! Flair is for the benefit of the guest, to entertain and involve them in an intimate setting."

The term seems fitting for someone who doesn't flair, but Isaza knows otherwise. "That's just straight-up flair. If I choose to twirl a jigger between my fingers instead of just picking it up, if I decide to toss a tin from left hand to right, as opposed to holding it still, if I pour from a slightly higher height with my arm extended instead of straight into a cup, I am using flair."

If Isaza doesn't think added flair will enhance a guest's experience, he won't flip their tins, so to speak. "If someone orders gin and tonics or rum and Cokes all night, I'll flair the hell out of it, but if I'm making cocktails with five or six ingredients, I'll focus on that aspect," he explains.

'I would never tell any employers about my flair, or that I'd attended competitions.'

"Flair is in a weird state right now," Isaza says. "Stereotypes of both mixologists and flairtenders do exist to a certain extent, but at the end of the day, we are all bartenders, who can learn from both sides of the spectrum. I want to make people happy. If it's with a quality drink, that's great; if it's with entertainment and flair and having an experience, I can do that, too. I can provide the entertainment, along with the product. Also, I think craft cocktail bars are starting to learn that that shit gets boring. Putting your head down, all mad-scientist style, is getting old."

In the competitive flair world, it's respect for flairtenders' skills that flows like daiquiris into coupes at the Bacardi World Cocktail Competition. But it's outside of the competitions where integration of flair can become a kind of watching-from-the-peanut-gallery atmosphere, which is also why Isaza's functional flair isn't always front and center. "Because of the preconceived notions, I feel like I need to limit my flair, or be somewhat reserved about talking about it because it doesn't make the general public, or even people in the hospitality industry, respect me. It just happens to be my hobby, but it's bigger than that. I would never tell any employers about my flair, or that I'd attended competitions. If you were associated with flair in any way, you were immediately disregarded from being hired because of the assumption you were a joke who couldn't hack it during service."

For Isaza, the growth of what is more than just a hobby, is dependent on merging the world of craft cocktails with that of flair, and allowing room for discussion so it can be given the respect it deserves. "There have been moments where people come in with a demanding attitude, like, 'Hey, you! Bar-clown, juggle shit for us!' I have to educate those people and talk them out of their amusement. But, when people are genuinely interested, I'm happy to share the flair."