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Mixology and Flair Bartending

flair bartendingBy Tom Dyer

There has long been a divide between mixology and flair bartending, and I’d like to set a few things straight because I can tell you right now, there are no mixologists or flairers – just different styles used by bartenders. If you look at what both styles stand for, and what they are, then you’ll realize every bartender flairs and uses mixology.

The word “flair” comes from “showing off.” I’m not saying that we are all showoffs, but we all have a certain amount of pride when we are working behind our bars. Don’t forget there are two types of flair: exhibition flair and working flair. One is for competitions and the other is for your everyday shift behind the bar.

flair bartending - tom dyer

Even if you are not throwing three bottles around, you are still pouring in your own stylish way, using your utensils in a specific way, or handling money and dealing with guests using your own little details. These are all types of flair. Let’s not forget Jerry “The Professor” Thomas, probably the most famous bartender to have lived, who was a flair bartender. He went around the states making his signature cocktail, the Blue Blazer, “performing” it and entertaining his guests whilst doing so. That is a type of flair, possibly making him one of the first flair bartenders in the world.

Now, I know some of you will be saying, “Yeah, but flair bartenders can’t make a drink.” Of course there are some people out there like that. They juggle away, showing off to their guests, making bad drinks and giving bad service. But you can say the same thing about mixologists.

I recently posed the following questions to social media: “What is a mixologist?” and “What is a flair bartender?” They both yielded some interesting responses. The best answer, in my opinion, was from Pepe Dioni, the Spanish president of the Association for the IBA. When answering what a flair bartender is, he simply answered, “A bartender.”

When I asked what a mixologist is, a lot of people replied that it was a term used to gain more money or something coined by the media, but essentially a label or fancy term for a bartender. This thought seemed only to apply to the term mixologist rather than flair. Which made me ask, why? Flair bartenders and mixologists are still just bartenders. Is it because the term flair bartender already has the word bartender in the title?

flair bartending by tom dyer

In the end most people seem to believe that there is no divide between mixology and flair. In fact, there are no mixologists or flairers, just bartenders. Those words are just labels that bartenders have given themselves, or the media have given to bartenders to make them sound more important or highly skilled, or to get paid more. But why should we, as bartenders, be labeling ourselves as anything other than bartenders? Peter Oosthuizen said it well, “If you are a doctor, per se, you will either be a general practitioner or a specialist. Either way, it still boils down to you being a doctor.” To me this is a great way of saying we are all bartenders, but we specialize in different aspects of bar tending.

As Philip Duff commented, “A bartender should be able to do everything a mixologist can do, but a mixologist can’t necessarily do everything a bartender can do. ‘Mixologist’ describes someone who is skilled at making drinks, full stop – not crowd control or speed or accuracy, or charm or hosting, or bar management or anything like that.”

Angus Wincester added, “I have no problem with people calling themselves anything to get paid more or laid more, but I do have a problem when people say they are a mixologist/cocktailian/drinksmith/bar chef and not a bartender. Rather, like flair, mixology (the ability to mix complicated cocktails) is merely a facet of bartending (serving alcoholic drinks to paying customers). If you call yourself a mixologist, then you will be out of luck if people stop drinking cocktails. I think flair bartenders are often some of the most professional and dedicated bartenders I know; but again, if they put too much emphasis on the flair and not the bartending, they too fall into the same trap as mixologists. Plus, if they choose to do exhibition flair while making drinks, then they let their ego take over.”

I couldn’t agree more with all these statements.

So I thought back to all the times I have asked the flair bartenders around the world, or been asked myself, “What do you do for a living?” The majority of them, myself included, said, “I’m a bartender” and then went on to explain that they specialize in that certain aspect of bartending called flair.

In most countries around the world, the bartending profession is looked upon as something that you do while studying, or in-between jobs. So the more we label ourselves as flairers, mixologists, liquid chefs or bar chefs, the more we are getting away from what we really are. At the same time, we’re putting down the bartender profession ourselves, by trying to be something more established.

Let’s stop with all these naive comments about flairing or mixology and bring it back to the basics. On that note, I will leave you with one question to ask yourself: When you fill out an application form, identity form or landing card, and it asks what your profession is, what do you write? If your answer is anything other than “bartender,” then you really need to re-think why you are in this profession.

flair bartender - tom dyer