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Fluid dynamics: the secrets of a flair bartender

Updated September 23, 2022 - 4:50 pm

When you’re a flair bartender, the whole world looks like something to toss.

And so it is when Vache Manoukian, a flair bartender at Mega Bar in Circa, flips everyday items without thinking when he’s at home: utensils, his toothbrush, his phone. And so it is when Spyder Rigor, another flair bartender at Mega Bar, cruises the condiment aisle at the grocery store: “I need this ranch?” he recalled. “I flip it, toss it behind my back, toss it into the cart.”

On duty, the flipping habit flourishes, as the bartenders perform tricks with barware and bottles to entertain customers. Like juggling, flair bartending presents an obvious demonstration of manual dexterity and eye-hand coordination, all seasoned with showmanship.

At the same time, a balance must always be struck between entertaining customers and supplying them with drinks (the basic job description, after all, of a bartender). On a recent day off, Manoukian and Rigor shared the secrets of striking that balance — at a bar longer than an Olympic swimming pool.

By the numbers

If any bar should be staffed by shifts of flair bartenders, it’s Mega Bar, which is itself an instance of flair, writ large. Very large: The bar stretches 165 feet on the first floor of Circa. There are 46 television screens and 53 seats with gaming machines and 120 beer handles.

Each day, the bar goes through 500-plus pounds of ice and about 50 bottles of base booze (vodka, gin, rum, whiskeys). In a year, that’s more than 90 tons of ice and more than 18,000 bottles. Mega Bar, which opened in October 2020, generates more business than the property’s six other bars combined.

“Sometimes, every seat is filled and it’s two-deep and they’re hanging around the corner of the bar,” said Sam Pulliam, beverage director of Circa. “We try to cultivate a bar with something for everyone. More often than not, a guest is going to remember the engagement they had with a bartender more than their cocktail.”

Which is where flair bartenders come in.

Liquid feel

Manoukian and Rigor have both flaired at Mega Bar since its opening. Manoukian got into flair bartending 20 years ago after his band broke up and he stumbled on a flair competition during a vacation in Florida. Rigor also took up flairing 20 years ago, inspired by a cousin who was throwing bottles when they owned a bar together in Seattle.

“What is this?” he recalled asking. “I fell in love with it.”

Flair bartending is partly built on fluid dynamics. “If the bottle has more than 3 ounces of liquid, it won’t do a full end-over-end rotation, so it’s not a working flair. It flies out of the spout,” Manoukian said. “If it has 3 ounces or less, you can do end over end, a full rotation.” Flair bartenders must learn to quickly judge, by look and feel, the volume of liquid.

Have shape, will spin

The shape of the bottle is also fundamental. “There’s a lot of easy bottles to flair and a lot of hard bottles to flair.” Rigor said.

The ideal bottle is cylindrical, with sufficient neck. The cylindrical shape allows the bottle to be flipped, spun and tossed more easily; a long enough neck affords a better grip than holding the bottle by its body. Examples of easy? Standard bottles of Skyy Vodka and Captain Morgan Spiced Rum.

Bottles with short necks or squat bodies are much more difficult to enlist in flairing. Like Crown Royal or Chambord or Hendrick’s Gin. And draft beer, from a flair perspective, is flat-out dull, “but we can do a ton of stuff with beer bottles,” Rigor said.

How often do the dropsies happen? Very rarely, Manoukian said, because practice. “We only do moves at work that are dialed in.”

Judging the flow

Flairing isn’t just about fluids and bottles.

The craft is also reflected in smaller gestures, like lighting the orange slice that garnishes an old fashioned or finessing a cocktail napkin so it lands with a swirl on the bar or suctioning a can of Red Bull to a palm, then inverting the can to pour the liquid into a drink.

Sometimes, flair bartenders observe the buddy system, Manoukian said. “If they’re doing a multi-pour flair, you have to knock out a couple of customers for them, help them if they’re setting up something big,” perhaps involving a bartender on a ladder pouring from a cocktail shaker into glasses balanced on bottles that are perched on a second bartender’s head.

But tricks, no matter how large or small, must always yield to the demands of basic bartending. The bartenders must constantly observe the flow of business to judge if, when and what style of flair to perform.

“If it gets busy, if it gets four-deep, everybody behind can see what I’m doing, so for the next people, I bring it down a notch,” Rigor said. “The most important thing is to serve guests in a timely manner.”

Defying gravity

The other afternoon off duty, though, it was tricks, not service, as Manoukian and Rigor demonstrated signature flairs on the customer side of Mega Bar.

Manoukian’s move involved balancing a bottle on the spinning side of a cocktail shaker, lofting the bottle onto the shaker’s edge, then flipping the bottle on the underside of his bent forearm. Rigor poured liquid into a cocktail shaker, then juggled the bottle and shaker, back and forth, without spilling a drop.

“You guys have three arms!” a passerby shouted.

It’s called flair.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ItsJLW on Twitter.

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