Food & Drink » Epicurious

Bartenders battle to bottle supremacy



Back in 1988, a boyish-looking Tom Cruise played a character named Brian Flanagan in the movie Cocktail. The movie tells the story of Flanagan's search to find his place in the world and along the way he discovers that one of the things he does well is perform on the business side of a New York nightclub bar.

Flanagan also connects with Jordan Mooney, a role played by Elisabeth Shue, but that is a whole other story that includes a guest appearance by actress Gina Gershon playing a character named Coral.

Flanagan and Douglas Coughlin, played by Bryan Brown, become the best-known bartenders in the city as word of their bottle spinning and bottle tossing tricks behind the bar goes viral.

The movie producers came up with a great tag line: "When he pours, he reigns."

Whistler's Bartender Challenge held at Tommy Africa's on Sept. 20 brought back late eighties memories of Cruise and Shue on the big screen and one of the most popular movie soundtrack albums of all time. The event in Whistler was the second in recent memory.

The nightclub manager, Jeff Cockle, says his club also hosted a similar event a few weeks earlier.

"The first one we were a touch busier," says Cockle of the Thursday evening event. "We were close to being full."

Cockle has a vision and it looks much like Flanagan's bottle tossing, juggling and long pouring, known as flair, in Cocktail.

"Nowhere in town is that being done," Cockle says on the eve of a road trip to Salmon Arm for a staff event following the busy summer season at the club.

Flanagan and Coughlin dazzle nightclub patrons through the movie with their impressive talents pouring drinks. Leading up to each pour they spin their booze bottles, toss them into the air and amuse the customers with their behind-the-bar trickery.

Cockle says he has a vision for Whistler's bartenders and that vision appears to be ripped right off the big screen from 1988. The soundtrack to the vision might include hits like Kokomo by the Beach Boys and Rave On by John Cougar Mellencamp or Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy from the album released with the movie.

The competing bartenders at the Whistler nightclub on Sept. 20 included the eventual winner, Max Duerksen. Cockle makes the bartenders the stars of the night with support from a hot DJ, like DJ Turtle, who provided the music at the most recent competition.

Cockle challenges each competitive bartender to bring his or her own cheering and support squad. Equipped with wristbands and fliers, the drink slingers build their posse of at least 20 people then come in early to get a bit of training. Cockle says his regular bartenders show the competitors where everything is and how things work in the bar.

At 10 p.m. it starts, as long as the bartender has at least 20 supporters in the place.

The judges have a formula. Cockle explains that 40 per cent of each bartender's score is based on how many people they bring into the place, which is monitored at the front door. Another 40 per cent is based on the total sales they each generate. Each bartender has a signature shooter and the final 20 per cent is calculated from the number of special creation shooters they sell.

There isn't any scoring related to any tricks the bartenders might use but any such action behind the bar could be a factor in overall sales.

Duerksen, bartender at Milestones, also has past experience pouring drinks at the Longhorn Saloon.

Cockle is giving Duerksen and other Whistler bartenders an opportunity to compete again as he's planning to hold another bartender competition in November. The bigger plan includes a series of competitions every few weeks through the winter.

Duerksen says he likes the idea of more competitions and more bartenders learning flair techniques.

"The thing with flairing is it comes down to each establishment," he says.

He points out that failed flair can be costly for bar owners.

"Dropping a flaming Sambuca can be just as cool as catching a flaming Sambuca," says Duerksen.

Throughout Whistler, bartenders and bartenders-to-be are quietly watching videos published to the Internet to learn bottle-handling tricks with the Cocktail soundtrack playing in the background.

"You see, there are two kinds of people in this world: the workers and the hustlers," says Coughlin in Cocktail. "The hustlers never work and the workers never hustle..."

Duerksen admits he has seen Cocktail but notes many patrons are too young to know about the movie, meaning there's a whole new audience that hasn't seen bartenders with crazy juggling skills and hands that move faster than the eye.

In addition to the bartender competition, Cockle is also working on a similar competitive DJ night.