|By Christopher Carey, St. Louis Post-Dispatch|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 22, 2004 - Don't mention "Cocktail" to Brian Williams when discussing the art of extreme bartending.
The movie, which starred a young Tom Cruise as a bottle-flipping, glassware-tossing mixologist, offered only rudimentary examples of the talents that Williams and his colleagues display each night at the VooDoo Lounge.
"That was the'80s," Williams said, surveying a Friday night crowd inside the club, at Harrah's St. Louis Casino and Hotel in Maryland Heights. "That's prehistoric as far as bar flair goes."
Williams and his co-workers are practitioners of "flair bartending," which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity that roughly parallels the rise of Las Vegas as a hot spot for young adults.
Harrah's imported the VooDoo lounge motif and flashy pouring style from another VooDoo nightclub at its Rio property just off the Las Vegas strip.
Williams, 28, has been working at VooDoo in Maryland Heights since it opened in April.
He started out as a teenage barback in Florida -- working as a bartender's helper by, for example, filling glasses with ice -- then graduated to bartender once he was old enough to legally pour alcoholic drinks.
He picked up a few bits of showmanship working at T.G.I. Friday's, a restaurant chain where flair has been part of the formula for more than two decades. His job at VooDoo is as much about showmanship as it is about slinging drinks.
"I think of this as being an entertainer," said Williams, who followed a former roommate from Florida to Missouri.
That mindset has led Williams and his co-workers to devote hours of off-duty time to learning new moves and perfecting old ones.
Many of the bartenders at VooDoo have set up practice bars in their garages or other roomy areas of their homes, he said. If one person comes up with something good, the others try to match it, Williams said.
"We push each other," he said.
Harrah's also brought in the Flair Devils, a crew of flair experts from Las Vegas, to help the staff at VooDoo add to their repertoire. Because some of the tricks require teamwork, the bartenders also polish their skills as a unit, Williams said.
"Once or twice a week, we'll get together in a park and practice with bottles," he said.
One of the most popular tricks at VooDoo involves two bartenders -- one seated on the other's shoulders- pouring more than a dozen drinks from multiple bottles.
Williams enjoys working at VooDoo because of the atmosphere and the accolades he receives.
"I tried college; it just wasn't my thing," he said.
Bartending allows him to go almost anywhere and make a comfortable living.
The pay varies with the venue, the city and the season.
"I've made anywhere from $300 a week to $1,200 a week," he said.
The income he earns at VooDoo is increased by the bottle-handling and pouring stunts, Williams said.
"I get more tips by doing the flair than doing the bartending," he said.
Some customers who've seen a trick they like sometimes ask Williams to repeat it for their friends, and often tip extra for the show.
Flair bartending at VooDoo helps establish a buoyant mood, Williams said.
"It energizes the club; people get excited," he said.
Early in the evening, the focal point at VooDoo is the large video screens showing sports events and other programming. That changes after the dinner crowd departs.
"At 9 o'clock, when the band starts playing and the lights come down, it becomes more of a nightclub than a restaurant," Williams said.
Extreme bartending has grown popular enough in recent years that devotees have their own industry group, the Flair Bartending Association, and match their skills against others in regional, national and international competitions. Williams participated in two competitions in Florida.
"I did pretty well in them," he said.
Ultimately, Williams would like to open his own flair bartending school to pass along what he has learned and help further the revolution. "I think bartending is going in a different direction," he said.
--Job: "Flair" bartender at the VooDoo Lounge, which opened in April at Harrah's St. Louis Casino and Hotel
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