Techniques

Stealth Flair: How to Sneak Showmanship into Your Bartending Practice

A bartender balancing a bottle on his elbow.
Adding flair to a cocktail presentation can be as subtle as one small trick, like balancing a bottle on your arm. Photos courtesy of Flair Demons.

Ask any bartender about the most important aspect of cocktail-making, and he or she will likely put taste and aesthetic at the top of her list. The utilization of delicious ingredients, unusual flavor combinations, the optimal ice-to-liquid ratio and a gorgeous drinking vessel topped with an appropriate garnish all fall within those categories. But what about the theatrical aspect of presentation, or, in bartender jargon, flair?

Over the years, flair bartending has proven a relatively contentious topic among bartenders. Some argue it's frivolous, and that your focus and skill development goals should be centered upon the drink itself. Contrarily, some bartenders insist that soft theatrics and subtle, tasteful showmanship can heighten a patron’s experience, add to your credibility as a cocktail artist, and perhaps even earn you a few favorable blasts on social media.

"Today’s consumers are becoming increasingly knowledgeable and demanding in the service of their drinks," says Anthony Pullen, trade advocacy manager USA for Bulldog Gin. "I believe flair is becoming more relevant again, because guests are beginning to see these little intricacies and understand them, whereas before they would be almost oblivious to it."

Pullen, who refers to these subtle movements as “stealth flair,” makes the argument that flair will become even more important in the years to come. "A little finesse from the bartender can make them stand out in the crowd," he says, especially "when every bar on Main Street makes great cocktails."

A man breathing fire behind a bar. Dennis Gray, founder of Flair Demons, is a major proponent for flair bartending, which he thinks offers bartenders a means of expressing themselves.

Dennis Gray, founder of Flair Demons — a traveling group of bartenders teaching updated, modern flair technique to bartenders across the globe — obviously falls within the pro-flair camp. He and his team believe flair bartending is not only an art form, but a way for bartenders to express themselves.

Flair bartending, he tells us, is experiencing a 21st century resurgence with a particular focus on craft flair.

"[Craft flair] is purely working flair and all practical, so any part of a routine can be broken down and used while in service," he explains. "It's very smooth to watch, and with limited objects, the creativity of tricks is skyrocketing."

A man pouring liquor into a shaker he is holding behind his back. There are simple ways to incorporate flair into your bartending practice, like by pouring spirits into your shaker behind your back.

Adding flair to your cocktail routine

The goal of craft flair bartending isn’t to turn yourself into a performing monkey or exhaust yourself with over-the-top, Tom Cruise style antics.

“You don’t need to throw 10 cocktail tins and five bottles in the air to make an impact,” says Gray. “Keep it simple, minimal, quick and smooth.”

With subtlety in mind, here are some easy ways you can add a little excitement via restrained drama to your cocktail making routine.

  • Flick your cocktail shaker, glass or tin with your index finger. The noise and the quick action together make a bigger impact than you may think.
  • Finger roll your bar spoon once or twice before you start making a cocktail or after you’ve finished stirring.
  • Spin your napkin before placing a drink in front of a patron.
  • Toss a lime, lemon or other “weightier” garnish behind your back and into a drink. You can even toss it behind your back and into your other hand before placing it carefully into the drink.
  • Balance a glass on a bar spoon and pour the drink. This is a complicated one by legend Nicolas St. Jean, but Gray says it packs a ton of wow factor and is one of his favorite flair moves.

A man balancing a glass on a bar spoon while men pour into the glass. Balancing a glass on a bar spoon requires practice but packs a great payoff — guests are inevitably amazed.

Some of these take practice, of course. And clearly, if you’re slammed behind the bar, every second you can get is precious. Stick to quick, “stealth flair” techniques and they’ll become habit soon enough. In other scenarios where time isn’t as important – at a competition or an event, for example – allow yourself to play it up some more.

“I definitely gauge my flair based on a number of factors before I even attempt to execute a trick,” says Gray. “The main one is how busy we are and how will it affect my speed. When it comes to shows and events, I go all out and have as much fun as possible.”

And that’s really what it’s about in the end. Have fun, express yourself, don’t stress and serve the best-made drinks your hands can whip up.

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