In Defense Of Flair Bartending

Remember when a bartender was someone who knew how to toss a bottle in the air and catch it with ease and panache? Or could rile up a crowd of regulars with his antics and sheer personality? Oh, sure, nowadays it's all about classic cocktail recipes and gilded-age fashions and facial hair. But some of us are nostalgic for a less faraway time – like, say 1988, when a toothy young Tom Cruise stole our hearts as a fast-talking, bottle-flipping barkeep.

You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that Cocktail-style bartending is alive and well in this era of celebrity mixologists and $16 signature drinks. Competitive flair bartending events take place around the country, and one of its stars is Brian Zachau, who not only slings drinks for T.G.I. Friday's, but also has his own consulting firm, LiquidMotion, which will school you in the art of flair bartending.

How did you become a flair bartender?

I started competing in the early 2000's, which was pre-YouTube, so every time you'd go to a competition you'd see new people and new tricks, things you never thought were possible. It was a fun time to get started.

What's a competition like?

Different people have been putting on competitions for 20-something years. T.G.I. Fridays has been doing one for, I want to say, almost 25 years. There are guys in Vegas, some in Europe. Each competition is different, which is fun. Some focus on just the flair, some incorporate mixology and speed. So, the more competitions you do the more you have to practice. It keeps your bartending skills sharp.

Aren't mixologist types at odds with flair bartenders?

There are some attitudes like that and I have no idea how or why that started. But, yeah, some mixologists are so against flair and there are some flair bartenders that think mixologists have that hoity-toity attitude. I don't see it like that at all. We're all bartenders and we all make good drinks for people and we try to make people have an enjoyable experience at the bar.

Is the Tom Cruise "Cocktail" association good or bad?

Some people get offended by it, but I see no reason for that. Especially because I work in a Friday's and it was filmed in a Friday's, so I just laugh about it. I've been doing it long enough where I have little one-liners I send back [when I get heckled]. But you know you have to embrace it because it helped popularize what we do as flair bartenders. Although, the skill level is far beyond what it was 20 years ago.

Speaking of Tom Cruise, flair bartending must keep you in shape.

Oh, yeah. I'm 35 and I find that I get a little winded at the end of a routine sometimes. I've got to make sure I'm jogging or doing other cardio to keep up. You're throwing bottles and doing repetitive motions, juggling and flipping, so you can definitely get a little tired. It's athletic like that.

Do the tricks have specific names?

If you hang out with specific circles of bartenders, after awhile, you'll start to hear things have common names. I don't know if there's anything official. "Stalling" is when you stop an object and hold it by balancing it on your arm or hand. That's a pretty universal term. Another is a "bump," when you throw an object off your elbow or forearm. A "capture" is if you would swipe a tin and catch the bottle with it. Then, there are tricks that people call four or five different things. You just go with it.

Do you have a most memorable moment from competing?

I've been doing it for so long I definitely remember times when things have gone wrong. A couple of times where I was like, "Oh man, I can't believe I did that." I've never seriously hurt anybody, but I've made some messes. There was one time, probably 10 years ago, where I did lose a bottle and it hit this guy. I thought I was going to kill him. He was really big and I was like, "This guy is going to come over the bar and knock me out." He looked at me and was like, "That was awesome."

Check out the hot moves of Brian Zachau: