For over a decade, professional bartending in the U.S. has grown from a series of small and marginally unorganized regional contests to a lucrative career-building industry complete with supportive associations, and year-round competitions. In particular, flair bartending has become an established form of entertainment that requires a high level of skill-based showmanship, with thousands of bartenders worldwide vying for highly-sought after championship titles at competitions such as Legends of Bartending, Quest for the Best Bartender and Blue Blazer.
In the late 19th century, “Professor” Jerry Thomas essentially founded the art of flair bartending when he began to entertain his customers by lighting drinks on fire and tossing them around. In the 1980s, T.G.I. Friday’s held a flair bartending competition and the winner, J.B. Bandy, wound up training Tom Cruise for his blockbuster role in the aptly-name movie Cocktail, the success of which sparked resurgence in flair bartending.
Two men in particular, Jim Allison and Ken Hall, have in most respects spearheaded the professional bartending industry’s success, and are responsible for the magnitude its networks of competitions and associations have reached for over ten years.
As president and CEO of the Flair Bartenders Association (FBA), Allison attributes the evolution of competitive bartending to a fun and passionate industry that has allow, and in fact encouraged the breaking of rule and pushing of boundaries.
“In the early days in the U.S., it was only flair bartending, while over in Europe it was very fluid - repetition after repetition. It was kind of boring, but it was beautiful,” says Allison, who began his flair bartending career in 1996 at a local competition in Orlando, FL. “Here we were pushing bigger and better moves but it wasn’t pretty. We started structuring the rules so that both sides could start to play the same game. We tried to teach the Europeans that there’s more to flair bartending than just repetition, and we showed Americans that you need a routine with flow, you have to have a sequence, and you can’t just throw a big move and win a competition. So we kind of threw our competitions and threw the rules in order to shape it in the direction that we wanted it to go.”
The initial concept of a structured bartending association began in 1997, with Allison and a group of fellow bartenders who were tired of unorganized competitions and senseless judging, including Toby Ellis of Bar Magic, LLC, Las Vegas. That same year, Hall, who began his flair bartending career at Pleasure Island Beach Club in the 1980s, opened up the VooDoo Lounge atop the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, as well as High Spirits Enterprises (HSE), a company like the FBA that facilitates all aspects of flair bartending including training and competitions.
From their humble beginnings, both companies worked hard to foster the growth of the professional bartending community through local, national and global competitions including HSE’s Legends of Bartending which began in 1999, and FBA’s Blue Blazer. In 2005, HSE and FBA joined forces and began the FBA Pro Tour, which at the time consisted of six yearly competitions, including Legends of Bartending, held at LAX in Las Vegas this past March. Although the competitions began as a platform for bartenders to showcase their skills in terms of performance and routine, at one point the art of mixology was added to the requirements giving participants an opportunity to not only show off their physical abilities, but their cocktail-making talents, as well.
“We wanted to create something unique so we opened up the rules and combined flair with mixology,” says Allison. “Some classic mixologists shunned us for it, but others really embraced it. People are always breaking the rules and taking things to the extreme. At Blue Blazer, these guys are in three-piece suits, and they take seven minutes to make a $15-20 cocktail with flair. Every time they get better and better and in my opinion that sets the bar for overall bartending.”
Getting involved in flair bartending competitions is not difficult, but some such as Legends are invitation-only depending on how well someone performed during the FBA Pro Tour. Many bartenders prepare throughout the year for the chance to earn a title and what can be a lot sizeable prize check, while others who are veterans of the circuit only need a couple of months worth of preparation before each contest.
“You can’t just show up for a competition like Legends or Blue Blazer,” says Allison. “They’ll chew you up and spit you out if you don’t know what you’re doing. But others are more laid back and fun – let’s get together and throw some bottles around.”
Not all professional bartending competitions involved the acrobatics and mind-blowing performances. Some, like the Stella Artois Draught Master Competition held at Lavo in Las Vegas this year, are all about the art of the pour.
“Cracking open a can or popping the cap off a bottle is easy, but preparing a beer following the strict standards of the Belgian Pouring Ritual takes a lot more care and attention to detail,” said winner Greg Black. “At the Draught Master Competition you know every step of the pouring ritual will be highly scrutinized.”
The Draught Master Competition recognizes the best bartenders for their ability to adhere to the Belgian Pouring Ritual – a nine-step process that includes “purifying” the glassware; “sacrificing” the first beer poured and “beheading” the beer for the perfect head of foam. The timed competition took place in front of a panel of four judges as well as a large audience of consumers and industry experts.
Judges graded the competitors on their ability to pour a perfect glass of Stella Artois and Hoegaarden from draught. Competitors also were judged on how well they opened, poured and served bottles of Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe Blonde. Judges were looking for the perfect pour as well as a showcase of skills, style and personality.
Damrak Amsterdam Original Gin hosted their second annual “Be OriGINal” Cocktail Competition in California in the early party of February where bartenders vied to make the most “OriGINal” cocktail using Damrak. Not like the more formal competitions held in larger arenas to intense crowds, “Be OriGINal” was held over the course of a couple of days, through San Francisco and Los Angeles, at 16 different lounges and restaurants. Ten selected competitors were chosen to be taken on a five day educational tour of Amsterdam and the Lucas Bols Distillery at the end of May.
Unfortunately many professional bartending competitions in the U.S. are suffering due to the recent economic turndown and subsequent lack of sponsorships. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for bartenders and mixologists worldwide to showcase their skills in flair, mixology or pouring, and can often be found by a simple internet search.
Hall is optimistic, though. “I think that flair competitions are ready for a change,” he says. “We are always looking for new ways to make our events better and more exciting. This is going to be a tough year, but the industry has grown so much and reached so far now that it will persevere and come out stronger than ever.”
Click here for more information on the Flair Bartenders Association (FBA)
Click here for more information on High Spirits Enterprises (HSE)
A BARBIZMAG.COM EXCLUSIVE REPORT For over a decade, professional bartending in the U.S. has grown from a series of small and marginally unorganized regional contests to a lucrative career-building industry complete with supportive associations, and year-round competitions. In particular, flair bartending has become an established form of entertainment that requires a high level of skill-based…