Inside job: Flair bartender

Learning to set drinks on fire at Bar Rouge


Flair bartending takes everything you loved as a child, i.e. juggling, magic tricks and starting fires, and combines it with everything you love as an adult, i.e. alcohol. Consider a flair bartending class as the perfect activity to combine you and your child’s interests the next time your wife suggests you’re not spending enough time with your son.

I wonder aloud how I can get my sons to practice spinning bottles without constantly sweeping up broken glass, and Jay T, bar manager at the newly-reopened Bar Rouge, hands me a plastic ‘Practice & Performance Bottle,’ an official product certified by the Flair Bartenders Association. I love that such an organisation exists and make a mental note to order a product catalogue before my son’s next birthday.

Jay T demonstrates some basic tricks, spinning the bottle in his hand like a cowboy spinning a pistol, rolling the bottle up his arm like a cowboy incorrectly spinning a pistol, and then a longer,the spinning and rolls but I manage a graceless, slow motion imitation of the choreography.

According to Jay T, there is a time for both simple flair as well as elaborate choreography. ‘We try and do lots of simple flair that doesn’t make people wait,’ he says. On the fast and simple side, he shows me how to quickly rub ice against my palm, squeeze and twist a Red Bull canister against the wet surface, and create a suction allowing me to magically pour a Vodka Red Bull without using my fingers. The more elaborate flair for the sake of flair happens on Friday and Saturday as scheduled entertainment. He shows a video of himself and two bartenders taken during a practice session as they rehearse a series of complicated flips and spins in unison while standing atop the patio bar overlooking The Bund.

Jay T’s signature move is grabbing a handful of ice cubes, tossing them in the air or popping them up off the inside of his arm, and then catching them inside an upside-down cocktail shaker in a series of downward strokes. Another bartender throws ice from a distant station and Jay T catches each one in a rapid series of slashes. I bet he got picked first when choosing snowball fight teams. At first I only manage to catch one out of five ice cubes but I get better as the night goes on. make a mess, but if you’re going to drop something on the job you could do a lot worse than ice; just ask flair surgeons.

Before we begin mixing cocktails the bartenders down a Jägermeister shot, and I hope downing shots is considered flair because it’s the only trick I master on the first try. We ponder the recently revamped cocktail menu and after considering some popular new offerings like the Pornstar Martini or the Marshmallow & Cinnamon Blaze – a mix of rum, homemade marshmallow and cinnamon syrup, coconut purée, and garnished with a toasted marshmallow cinnamon stick – we decide to start with a classic Mojito. I put the staff on notice that I’m no Mojito rookie. If you’ve been to my house you know I specialise in making a Mojito that may not look very appetising, but it isn’t.

After watching a bartender demonstration, I choose 10-12 fresh mint leaves, clap them together in my hands, and then smooth the leaves against the inside of a Collins glass to infuse the glass with mint flavour and aroma. I add six lime wedges, three brown sugar cubes, lemon juice and sugar syrup, and lightly mash together, being careful not to break up the leaves. I learn this is the key mistake I made at home and explains why the drink was not only terrible, but left large amounts of leaf residue on my guests’ teeth. I add crushed ice, rum, agitate with the end of the bar spoon, add more crushed ice, garnish with a mint leaf, add two straws and place on a napkin.

When compared to the bartender’s Mojito, mine tastes about the same but doesn’t look as professional. And it also took me about ten times as long to prepare. Patrons want quality and flair, but they also don’t want to wait. The Mojito is Bar Rouge’s most popular drink and on the weekends they prepare a quantity of Collins glasses already containing the dry ingredients.

Experts say the first flair bartender was Jerry ‘The Professor’ Thomas, who can credit bartending for putting him on the path to his own Wikipedia page and a nickname that allowed him to skip 12 years of college. Both of those achievements will be cited when my wife questions why I’ll pay for our children’s flair bartending school but not for college.

My children will be hooked on flair bartending once they learn about the Flaming Tower. After preparing two cocktails, I build a tower of wine and shot glasses, cover the bar with lighter fluid, and after igniting a glass of Grand Marnier, spill the contents over the top. The resulting eruption and patron applause combined everything I dreamed of as a child: fire, alcohol, and peer approval.

Perhaps The Professor was the first flair bartender, but if applying magic tricks to alcohol qualifies as flair, and Jesus turned water into wine, wasn’t Jesus the first flair bartender? Pretty impressive, Jesus, except I can turn wine into urine, and you don’t see me writing a book about it.