TOBY ELLIS IS… Cut Off – “I Am Number One”

Updated: March 1, 2005

When I first starting competing, which came seven years after I began throwing things around at work, the big names were… Alan Mays, Leigh Miller, Ken Hall, Bill Long, Storm, Billy Suds, John Fiore, Iceman, Ray Weeks, Geoff Meston, Alfred Kao, Pat McNamara, Billy Hitchcock, and Mark Schultz.

But no matter who you talked to, nobody could agree on what I thought had to be a pretty simple question: Who is the best Flair Bartender in the world?

Leigh1Seemed most Europeans trumpeted Englishman Leigh Miller as the top dog with his revolutionary new style (at the time) of movement and humor mixed with flowing bottle-tin and amazing tricks… like two object releases from one hand, up and over the shoulder (including two frozen drinks at once).  

Most Americans agreed Alan Mays was the man of the hour with his you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it THREE bottle tricks and dare-I-say FOUR bottle moves; with his then side-kick Ken Hall close on his heels and the most graceful linebacker of a bartender I’ve ever seen, Bill Long, on breathing down both their necks.

I know some of you would like to hear aboot the rockstars from the great White North, but  Scott Young and Dean Serneels were just as wet behind the ears when it came to the big competition scene, as I was back then, believe it or not.

We  were big fish in little, icy cold ponds. In fact I remember Dean doing what JD called “butt juggling” with bottles back then. There wasn’t much of a scene that we knew of from anywhere else in the world, though tales would surface of some mad skills on an island in the pacific rim (which we later would learn was Singapore.) And nobody, and I mean nobody, heard of bottle-flippers from of all places, Argentina.

It was a two nation race back then, our own little cold-war, as old as the Boston Tea Party… the Brits and the Yanks. “Across the pond,” Mr. Barcode, was it not? Still, with the FBA picking up steam and Legends on the map… no number one. No Magic Johnson. No Wayne Gretzky. We had no superman.

AlanNearly ten years later, and finally it looks like we have our caped crusader, our undisputed heavyweight champion of Flair Bartending. So why can’t we agree as a community, that Senor Delpech, the older of the two, is indeed….the best of the best. Well permit me to argue with myself about this for a minute. You can listen in. Here goes.

First off, there can be no doubt in any half-sane person’s mind that Christian is hands-down the #1 competitive Flair Bartender on earth. Just when the dynamic duo of Alan Mays and Ken Hall were having their hands bronzed, the smoother-than-silk South American Sensation quietly slipped onto the scene and stole the show. He never looked back and now all of us are chasing. I still remember the look Jim Allison threw at me at Quest, when I asked about the “rookie” with the pony tail. I knew from Jim’s face, before even seeing him flip, he was going to change Flair. How much, nobody, not even Nostra-Tobus, could have predicted. 

By the end of next year, Dynasty Delpech will likely have earned more legitimate championship titles than most Flair Bartenders will have earned Birthdays. There is not one major event he has not won… emphatically. The man won Legends, arguably the most technical and challenging all-around Flair Bartending competition in existence, four years in a row. Folks, that’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back! He smoked the field at Roadhouse, arguably the hardest pure bottle-flipping “show us your shit” contest to win, twice. BAM. Short of cascading vodka-soaked flaming chickens out his ass whilst balancing the American Budget on his forehead, I can’t think of what else Mr. Delpech could do to receive universal acceptance that he is quite simply, the best. Okay, put your hand down Horseshack, here’s where I argue with myself, on your behalf. Because for some reason, you just can’t accept what is so painfully obvious. No worries, I got your back.

Bill(Enter other Toby, stage right.) Hold up! Just because Christian has won nearly every Flair Bartending competition there is; that doesn’t make him the best Flair Bartender. I mean, shit… just because you can flip bottles doesn’t even make you a good Bartender, as many of our non-flipping comrades will all-to–quickly point out. And it’s true. (Although the first Toby will be the first to say that with months of working in the well next to Christian, he’s got mad game when it comes to speed, service, mixology, and more. It needed to be said. Back to second Toby.)

Being able to win all those competitions really only makes Christian the best competitor, in our sport…not the best Bartender in our trade, right? Many of us know of a couple Flairers who place in the top 10 in big comps who haven’t the faintest clue how to really Bartend. (What? It’s true and you and I both know it. Why is everybody so afraid of the truth? Odd.)

Competitions don’t actually test a lot of the skills you need to be a great Bartender. You don’t even talk during a competition and half of Bartending is talking to people, isn’t it? And it’s one thing to be flawless up on a clean, clean stage performing a routine you’ve practiced six kajillion times. It’s a whole different ballgame when you’re flying without a net, behind a live bar. So just because Christian cleans up at all the comps, certainly does not prove he is the world’s best Flair Bartender.

And what about Frenchy? You know, Nicolas St. Jean. There’s more than a few people that think he’s as good, or possibly better than Senor Delpech. He’s beaten Christian on more than one occasion. Ok, I’m not going to pour too much gasoline on that fire, but I will point out something inescapable, as much as I love to watch Nicholas Flair. (Real nice guy, too. I see eye to eye with him a lot better than many people do.) As talented as Nicholas is, and even considering he has beaten Christian, Nicholas has yet to prove himself in any of the major comps that require more than pure Flair skills. After Nicholas walks away with a half dozen championship trophies from Legends, Quest, Triple Challenge, et al… and a few back-to-back-to-backs, then we’ll have this discussion again. Until then, je regrette mon ami, it’s a one man race. Or maybe a one-family race.

ChrisYes, Nicholas is one of the most talented bottle-flippers in the world, perhaps  say some, even the most talented… but saying he is the best Flair Bartender in the world, at this point, is a stretch. Believe me, I’d love the big comps to have the suspense of Roadhouse, where it’s not a foregone conclusion who will win, if he just hits his rounds. As hard as Christian has worked, as much as he deserves everything he’s won, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see somebody give him a run for his money. That would be awesome to watch. Can you imagine the insanity those two people would be pulling out of their bag of tricks at every comp on the planet? You think Christian is good now? Throw somebody up on stage who he knows could beat him, every time? Watch the bar raise. Ok, enough about that. Delpech is the best in competition, that’s a no brainer. But is that enough to call him the best?

And wait a minute… let’s not count out the ironman of Flair, Mr. Multiplex himself, Ken Hall. I’m here to let you in on a little secret… he’s not out of the game, not by a longshot. Sure, he’s got a few distractions that have kept him our of the spotlight. You know, like running most of the biggest comps in North America. And three yes three bartending jobs. And then there’s the wife, two children including a newborn.

Ken is a competitor and a champion. Plain and simple. I think he once told me that he won or came in second every contest he’s ever been in since 1992. Something like that, up until last year. (Not too shabby, I think, as I sheepishly stare at my tiny little collection of plaques and trophies, not one of which stand more than a foot tall.) In the eight plus years I have known him, including the year we were roommates, I can tell you… anything Ken puts his mind to, he can be #1 at. Nobody except possibly Christian can break down a speed round like Ken. He’s beaten Christian (Triple Challenge) and he’s still got the sickest 3-bottle, non-juggling patterns in the business.

Add to that his skills behind a high-volume bar, which I am wingman to, every Tuesday night, and Ken’s a hard argument to knock for best of the best. You want to see real speed behind a bar? Sit in his well for an hour or two. What’s really amazing about his bartending? He is clean, clean, clean. I truthfully don’t remember the last time I saw him drop behind the bar. And spill? He spills so rarely, I do remember the last time I saw, no…. felt him spill. And believe me, I busted his balls about it all night. He is that good. (Makes me sick, lol.)

NickAnd there’s one more very important thing to consider… his protégés. The guy who started as barback to Billy “Stop, Drop, and Roll” Sudsiri has himself become a coach for the ages. Ken took Captain Boogie and Bryan McCall under his wing…. Boogie won the rookie world championship at Quest, McCall took second. Boogie has torn it up in competitions around the world, ever since. Ken has worked with Hibbert, Flippy, Delpech, and many more, helping them improve their games.

I’ll tell you flat out the only reason I ever made the finals of Quest and Legends… was from what Ken taught be about competing. It sure as hell wasn’t my Flair. My nickname should have been crash. But I made the finals. Quest. Legends. Quest. Caymans. Flips for Tips. Blue Blazer. On my word… all of that stemmed from training to compete with the master planner, the competition magician. So maybe Ken Hall is the best Flair Bartender?

Hold the phone, Malone! How can anybody even say who is the “best” Bartender? Let along the best all-around “Flair Bartender?” What is that? Is it whoever wins the most working Flair rounds? (Christian or Ken). Is it who’s been winning big comps over the longest span of time? (That would be Ken). Is it Oscar Perez who put on a Delpech-esque round of perfection at the Blue Blazer, which showed the two most exacting and creative skill sets a Flair Bartender can have… bottle-flipping and mixology? What about Mindaugas “Mig” Gradeckas? Who else can draw a crowd of hundreds and whip them into a $20 bill throwing mob like the Insanian Lithuanian?

KenAnd excuse my understandably Vegas-biased list here, but I could unleash a list of bottle-jockeys here (imports and homegrowns) who are all full-package rockstars behind their own bars…. Llorente, Leoni, Morris, Pacheco, Berrier, Gerami, Reibenack, Holbert, Hall, Rossi, Grinspun, Banawa, Barcode, Connelly, Taing, Cogburn, Oldan, Garcia, and on and on and on. Let’s not leave out our mates Lowery, Hilton, Bartos, Boke, Dyer, or Garner. Can I rank them all from one to ten? Preposterous! Who on earth would ever have the audacity (or is it the vision?) to try something as wild as that! (Shut it, Rick. Nobody remembers that but you, me, Allison and Hall.)

Well sportsfans, the depressing truth I have to share with you, is there never has been, nor will there ever be, an answer to this question. Why not? Because until you and me both sit down for an eight-hour shift, invisibly, every single week for a year or two, at every single Flair Bartenders’ bar in the world, neither of us will every truly know, who is the best, who is on-point with their full-on A-game, every minute, of every shift.

We just can’t know things like who rings the highest while making the best drinks, bringing in the most tips, while entertaining the most people and giving the fastest, most perfect service all while throwing the craziest and the smoothest, most accurate Flair without spilling or dropping. Oh, and who’s to say all of these things are what makes a Flair bartender great? Who says you can’t spill? Who says you have to be fast? And in a bar where the most intricate cocktail is a double captain and coke, what does mixology have to do with any of it? Nothing! Exactly.

Have your favorites (I do). Spew your semi-educated opinions (I do). Post your little heart out. (I have.) Because what really makes a Bartender great, the things that put them on the top of my list, are the almost unnoticeable things that few of us will ever talk about, post about, or probably even know about. The things that really add up, can’t be counted on a clicker or tabulated on a laptop.

Take Tony Rossi for example. I know what most of you are saying…. who? Tony Rossi. Ask Ken Hall about Tony. I work with Tony at Tangerine; you might remember him from Nations… he was the big, mean looking bartender at Icehouse (who’s really a big teddy bear, truth be told). He’s an old school Flair Bartender, and one of the best all-around Bartenders I have ever had the privilege of working with. He blow the sickest fireballs, no…let me correct that… he walks the coolest fireballs down the bar, that I’ve ever seen. And you will never, in your life, meet a Bartender with a better bedside manner than Tony Rossi. And that is priceless and rare… but would never show up on a competition score sheet. Neither will his ability to handle more volume than a 60-foot stack of Amps at a KISS concert. So no, you’ll probably never see the “Tony Rossi” commemorative Flair bottle, which is a shame, because he’s certainly an example to model yourself after. He’s just the kind of Flair bartender that I’m rambling about here, the kind that flies under the radar like Steve Pacheco, Rene Garcia, Jamie Berrier, and Paul Reibenack.

MigThere’s also my buddy T. Green, who was flipping bottles at the Tyson’s Corner TGI Friday’s while you and I were shitting our pants whilst working on solid foods. T can’t juggle bean bags, but he has more regulars that he knows by name who adore him, than could fill Club Rio and RA on the night of the Legends Finals. The Legends finals, I might add, where we watch in awe and bliss, as some of the better Flair Bartenders of the world, entertain us for a night with their passion and panache. And we cheer. Not for who is or isn’t #1, but because we love Flair. We’re family, damnit. One big, bottle-flipping, drink-slinging, shadow-passing, free-pouring, up-all-night dysfunctional family living in some 115 countries… sharing but one passion. We love to throw shit around while we make drinks. And that’s all that really matters, when you strip away the fat, get down to brass tacks, and tap the last keg. We’re all just a bunch of fun-loving freaks. Bless our non-conventional hearts.

So who’s the best, you ask me? Well, if it ends the arguments and keeps this family together, let’s just all say it’s… oh, I don’t know: how about me? This way nobody has to bicker or curse at each other ever again. It’ll take a little pressure of Christian, too.

It’ll just be so much easier this way. Now when anybody asks you “so who’s the best Flair Bartender in the world” you just tell ‘em Toby Ellis and move on with your night. See how simple that is? Hey, it’s okay, I don’t mind, you know, if it helps settle the debate. Sshhhh… no time to argue with me, that guy pounding his glass on the bar wants to order a budweiser….six of them…one at a time, and leave you a buck, if you’re lucky. Cheers.

My name is Toby. I’m a Bartender. Sometimes, I’m a really, really good bartender. Sometimes, I’m an idiot. Now and then, I’ve been one of those better bartenders up on the stage catching a good bit of what I threw. But mostly, I land somewhere in between the three and try my best just to enjoy the ride. Cut me off, before I go on.

p.s. If you’d like to take one gigantic step closer to being one of the best Flair Bartenders in the world, listen up. I have an idea that might catch you off guard. Just for one night, don’t Flair. Blasphemy! No, stay with me for a second. No Flair. Nothing. Not a lime, not a straw. No even a palm spin. Nada. You will crap your pants (figuratively, I hope) when you realize how many things you missed because your eyes and your mind were so glued to your bottles and your Flair, instead of … everything and everybody else at the bar. Instead, spend all your energies on all other parts of the game. Especially for those of you who learned to Flair as you first learned to Bartend, where all you know is Flair.

And before you start flapping your gums about how great you are at this and that and what amazing bar eyes you have (to which I call bullshit… nobody can keep their eyes and their mind focused on flying bottles AND everything else at the same time, sorry but I’m not buying, lol)… just listen and think about it. Can you even go a whole shift without Flairing? It’s harder than you may think. But seriously, it is probably the single most eye-opening experience you can have behind the bar. How do I know? I tried it not even a year ago, for the first time in fourteen years. I’m telling you… it will change the way you Bartend forever, and for the better. I could go on and on and tell you all the things that will happen, but what fun would that be? Just do it. And then tell me I’m wrong. Tell me, afterwards, that it truthfully didn’t blow your mind. I dare you. Keep the faith.



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