At the Professional Bartending School in Arlington, martinis come stirred, not shaken. They also—if you’re lucky—come with a flourish. “This one’s for you,” says the bartender, flicking his thumb and forefinger like a gun. He winks and tosses up a martini glass. It lands upright on the back of his hand. Then suddenly the glass is on the counter, full, and he’s swiping an olive out of the air with a metal tumbler and dropping it into the gin and vermouth. He slides the drink across the bar. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Moe Harris.
Harris is not trying to be a rock star. He just wants to serve you a good drink. Flair bartending—throwing, flipping, twirling, spinning, rolling, and catching bottles and glasses while mixing a cocktail—is part of the package. Flair reigns in cities like London and Vegas; in Washington it’s just starting to pick up. That’s thanks to Harris and a few bottle-flipping friends. A few years ago, they formed the Pour Boys, a flair group that performs in area clubs. Their mission: to raise the bar on Washington flair.
After Hours caught up with Harris, an instructor at the Arlington school, and fellow Pour Boy Freddy B., who has bartended at Platinum and Anzu in DC, to learn a little more about the tricks of the trade.How did you get into flair bartending?
HARRIS: Let’s start at the beginning. Thirteen years ago, I was a bad kid. I grew up here [in Woodbridge], but when I was in the 9th grade I got sent to live in upstate New York with my brother. I wound up getting into more trouble up there. Eventually I got tired of that, and I just kind of took off to Mexico. I have cousins in Mexico. There was a bar in Acapulco, and they needed a bilingual bartender, and I said, “I’m bilingual.” I had seen the movie Cocktail, and that was it. And then some bar manager of some big club in Acapulco came and saw me and asked if I wanted to work at his place. I was like, “Look, I really don’t know how to make drinks.” And that’s when I started bartending. Now I’ve bartended in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the island of Dominica. The flipping bottles thing is recent. It started 3 or 4 years ago when I got destroyed in a competition. When I signed up, I knew nothing. If I could go back, I would say, “Moe, you have no business being in this competition.” But then again I wouldn’t have learned any more if I didn’t go. Freddy was actually one of my students, four or five years ago. He got better so fast, it actually pushed me to get better. I was like, “I can’t have him better than me.”
So what is flair bartending?
FREDDY B.: A lot of people don’t know what it is. They think we’re just bottle flippers. There’s a bar here called Front Page, and they have a channel with extreme sports—snowboarding and a couple of other sports. And I think flair actually falls into the same category. You can get hurt really badly. Like I was practicing at home and a bottle fell down on this bone [points to ankle] and I went straight to the floor. I stopped practicing for at least 30 minutes. But flair is a passion. Once you get in it, it’s very addictive.
HARRIS: Magic. That’s what I call flair. Because you don’t believe in magic, do you? So if you watch somebody like Chris Angel, you don’t say, “Oh my God, that’s magic.” You know it’s an illusion. But what’s magic is the feeling that you get, like “Oh, my God, that’s so cool.” That’s the magical part. And that’s why I like to describe flair as magic. I could show you right now the basic science behind the most complicated moves. But it’s magic when you see somebody do it, and do it well.
We’ve all seen Cocktail, the ’80s movie with Tom Cruise. Is flair bartending anything like that?
HARRIS: You know, I used to live in Springfield, Virginia, so I get called “Moe the Bartender” all the time. And you know what? I don’t mind. But I hate when people say, “Hey, you’re like Tom Cruise!” I’m nothing like Tom Cruise. That movie has probably done more damage for flair bartenders than anything else. People get this misconception that we’re spilling a lot, because he spills a lot. And the flair he does is actually horrible.
You guys do it very well. How often do you practice?
FREDDY B.: A lot. I go on YouTube and I stay on there for hours, watching in slow motion, seeing how they do a move, and then I’ll take that move and make it my own, and add a twist to it. The moves have so much detail. It’s more complex than you think.
HARRIS: Flair is an attitude. In addition to the bottle flipping, we practice pointing and winking. Not just pointing and winking like I’m winking at a girl, but sometimes you really want to pronounce a move. It’s showmanship.
How many bottles do you think you’ve broken?
HARRIS: Wow. I couldn’t even tell you. But look, even Michael Jordan missed a free throw. It’s part of the learning process. When I don’t break bottles, that’s when I know I’m getting lazy with my flair. But it’s very rare that we break a bottle at the bar. In a bar, if I’m not going to catch it a thousand times out of a thousand, I’m not going to throw it.
So bar flair is different from flair you would do in practice or in a competition?
HARRIS: Yes. You’ve got working flair, and you’ve got exhibition flair. You can almost think of it as a basketball game versus a slam-dunk contest. Working flair is what you do behind the bar that’s not going to sacrifice any speed, any service, any product. If you have a full bottle, you’re not going to be able to do every throw—alcohol will fly out. At competitions, we preset our bottles to an ounce of alcohol. And again, that’s more of a slam-dunk contest. That’s us saying, “Look what we can do.” But working flair is a beautiful thing. You could go to any bar in DC and all the drinks taste the same, they’re all about the same price, and you hear the same music. Anytime you can do something just a little bit different, people really notice.
Do customers ask you to do tricks?
FREDDY B.: Honestly, you hate it when people are like, “Hey, can you show me a trick?” It’s kind of like asking a comedian to tell a joke.
HARRIS: I like to call it stealth flair. I don’t like to be so blatant about it and be like, “Hey, look at this trick I’m about to do.” I’m just going to flip bottles, and it’s going to be real smooth and you may or may not notice it, and when you notice it you’re going to say, “Did he just do what I thought he did?” Yes, I did.
Tell me more about the Pour Boys. How often do you do shows?
HARRIS: We’ve been doing the show for about two-and-a-half years now. There was a time when we did a show once a week and that got really exhausting. Every week—bang bang bang bang. Now we do a show about once a month. We do have a really strong following. People ask, “When’s the next show? When’s the next show?” What’s so great is, I know we feel the same way when we’re on stage. When we’re on stage and you get 400 people going “Freddy! Freddy!”—not too many people get that. I’m never going to be a rock star or anything like that, but when you have 400 people going “Moe! Moe!” it’s so much fun.
Any advice for future flair bartenders?
FREDDY B.: I got together with a few bartenders a couple days ago, so the conversation was about what makes a good bartender. To me, it’s personality. Flair actually comes in second to service. Service is very important—knowing how to talk to people, how to communicate.
HARRIS: Honestly? Until you master the bartending part, until you practice so much that your fingers have bled, I don’t want you to even attempt flair. And by master, I don’t mean know a lot of drinks. I mean be so efficient behind the bar that you actually create time. Some bartenders are going to make a lot of money because they converse with a lot of people, some bartenders are flirtatious, some bartenders flip bottles, but none of those would be possible if you weren’t a good bartender. People buy a drink, but they tip you.
Want to party with the Pour Boys? MySpace Harris (PourBoyMoe) to see where and when their next gig will be.
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