In 1988, the movie Cocktail did for bartenders what the two previous Tom Cruise vehicles did for fighter pilots and pool sharks. It fetishized flair over skill, turning mere mixology into a song-and-dance sideshow -- juggling, with a license to serve alcohol. Nick Arenas, who heads up the Sherlock's Quest for the Best Bartender Competition, doesn't deny Cocktail's importance. "That was the pinnacle time when flair bartending was at its peak," he says. But according to Arenas, Cruise's movie-star crash course in drink slinging misses the mark by today's standards. "We're experience makers, not order takers. It's the movie Cocktail times ten."
In the contest, bartenders compete in two categories: speed and flair. The speed round tests knowledge and skill. Bartenders are given a list of five drinks and two beers to serve as quickly as possible. Points are deducted for blunders: spills, wrong ingredients, over- (or under-) pouring, wrong garnish, etc. The real cowboys usually finish at the minute to minute-and-15-seconds mark.
The flair round, on the other hand, is for showboating. Contestants get five minutes to complete three drinks and open a beer. It's really a juggling contest (Arenas says there's a certain bartender from Vegas who can keep six bottles in the air), and it's judged with the same meticulous point system as the speed round. Apparently, the movement of spinning bottles and swirling liquid can become mesmerizing; it takes an expert eye to spot exceptional flair. "When you're engulfed in the sport of bartending, everything starts looking the same," says Arenas. "It gets very, very intense." The winner of the state finals advances to the world finals in Orlando, Florida.
And in the rare case of a tie? Bartenders compete in a "pour-off" to see who can best eyeball two ounces of liquor. (Of course, we all know the "best" bartender is the one who eyeballs four ounces as two.)