Talking Shop with a 17-Time World Champion Flair Bartender
It’s the 2016 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, and Christian Delpech, a world-renowned flair bartender and four-time Legends of Bartending champ, opens his routine with a hammy charisma, his eyebrows dancing up and down on his face as he rhythmically tosses a cocktail shaker to the opening chords of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The crowd whistles in encouragement, and as the tempo picks up and the voices of Freddie Mercury and his bandmates swell with the words “havin’ a good time, havin’ a good time!” Delpech sidesteps from behind the bar and out into the open.
Taking a wide stance in his fresh white sneakers, he begins to really hit his stride, tossing a bottle and shaker all over the place — behind his back, over his head. He’s bouncing the bottle off his elbow, catching it in the shaker and launching it back into the air. Always keeping time with the music, he’s so comfortable in his routine that his eyes sometimes dart up from watching his hands to make contact with the audience, sure that he’ll catch the bottle he just sent sailing behind his head to land in his left palm as it hovers near his waist. And catch it he does, every time.
It’s an impressive and flawless performance, yet an Instagram post of the show online features as many disdainful or sarcastic comments as it does admiring ones. “And we’re still waiting for our drink 6 hours later,” remarks one commenter. “Pour my drink already champ,” jeers another. Others say it’s “awesome,” that Delpech is “legendario.” And herein lies one of the major questions for modern flair bartending — will it ever regain the respect it enjoyed during its 80s heyday, when Tom Cruise starred as the dexterous young bottle-slinging Mr. Flanigan in "Cocktail?”
According to Delpech (who started his career as a flair bartender after seeing — you guessed it — “Cocktail”), flair is already in the midst of a renaissance thanks to flair bartending’s incorporation of the tenets of mixology.
Christian Delpech pulled out all the stops in this stage performance, but he believes the best form of flair is the kind you can actually use every day behind the bar. Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography
“In my eyes, flair — the comeback that it has is funny to me because a lot of people are saying it’s a new era of flair mixed with mixology, and I’ve been doing it and saying in seminars that it is the ultimate bartending since 2005,” Delpech says. “Now that flair has a little bit more acceptance from the craft world and vice versa, the two worlds are becoming one and this is great. That’s what we are all looking for. It’s gonna take a while, but it’s happening.”
Flair went out of vogue years ago, though it survived in places like Las Vegas (where Delpech, originally from Buenos Aires, spent much of his career) and at TGIFridays, an early and longtime patron of the form. Delpech credits the shift to overexposure and flair’s adoption by untrained bartenders. “If you use flair behind the bar when you work, it’s a matter of knowing when to do it,” he says.
Folks like Delpech distinguish between the type of routine in the clip above and what’s called “working flair,” a toned-down version of the form that adds a little razzle-dazzle to the process of drink-making — the spin of a shaker here, the quick-fire opening of numerous beers there — without drawing out the time a customer has to wait for a drink.
“When you see competitions, you see people doing three, four shakers and one bottle and calling it working flair, but working flair is not that. You see someone do one bottle and one shaker, you’re like, ‘I can do that.’ But with five shakers, you’re like, ‘I can never do that!’” Delpech says. And in his estimation, mixology of late has suffered from the same oversaturation and showboaty over-complication that flair once fell victim to.
“If you make a classic, you are learning and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can do that!’ But if you’re like you’re gonna infuse whiskey and leave it there for 48 hours and buy this type of fruit from this market and do this syrup that is an infusion of thyme and sugar and whatever crazy idea -- they smoke [the ingredients]! It becomes unfunctional. People are like, ‘I dunno if I like it.’”
Having suffered the slings and arrows of the same fortune — the progression of their respective crafts from novel to outrageous — the flair and craft worlds have begun to look more kindly on one another. “The flair world has accepted craft for a while, because if you bartend, you have to know how to make drinks,” Delpech says. With his school, Elite Bartending School, in Miami and his gigs consulting on flair for clients like Celebrity Cruise Lines, Delpech is on the front lines of flair’s comeback behind the ice wells at everyday bars.
“It will take a while, because it has to be something cool,” Delpech says. “People in the craft world, they never flaired before. If you show them a little cool trick with a shaker, that is the best, because it’s the one you can use every day behind the bar. You’re going to see a lot of people doing the same moves. You’re gonna see different styles more than different moves.”
Ultimately, Delpech’s love of flair is based on his desire to give his customer a dynamic experience, something every bartender can relate to. “When I have a guest in the bar, I was to give him an everlasting experience, not [just] a good cocktail… Behind the bar you can always flair. If you have to throw down a napkin, you can flair.”