Tobin Ellis is the godfather of flair bartending. He has made a career of selling the sizzle on a steak and has leveraged his considerable abilities into a highly successful beverage consultancy. His relatively rapid ascension into national prominence has landed him nationally televised gigs on the Discovery Channel, ABC, E!, USA Channel, Spike TV, plus multiple appearances on "Throwdown With Bobby Flay" and "On the Rocks: The Search for America’s Top Bartender." Therefore, it seems rather ironic that the now celebrated mixologist should credit a relatively obscure drink for launching his bartending career.
Ellis began working the draft beer spigots at a local bar and washing dishes at his college’s catering department. His break came about a year later when a bartender didn’t show up for a catered function at the college president’s house. Ellis volunteered his services and immediately ran to the bookstore and bought a copy of "Mr. Boston’s Recipe Guide." Concerned about being asked for drinks he didn’t know how to prepare, he quickly memorized a handful of recipes, one of which was for the cream drink, Pink Squirrel.
As the fates would have it, the president’s wife walked up to the bar later that evening and asked him to prepare — of all things — a Pink Squirrel. Apparently the drink and Ellis were a hit because at the end of the party the president of the college came over and told him he was the only bartender they wanted at their house for future events.
That success was quickly followed by a job at a T.G.I. Friday’s opening some 50 miles away in Syracuse, N.Y.
“I was really excited because I heard they had the best bartender training program in the world. I started tending bar there three days a week, all the while working my other two bartending jobs back in Oswego [N.Y.] and being a full-time student. Within a few years I was promoted to a T.G.I. Friday’s bar trainer and traveling the country opening stores, training bartenders, etc.”
It was while working for T.G.I. Friday’s that Ellis began flipping — and catching — bottles behind the bar. He found that flair bartending was a proven means of wowing guests, building repeat business and driving sales to new heights. In 1997, he co-founded and served as first president of the Flair Bartenders’ Association. Ellis set out to bring as much credibility to the art of flair as possible and adopted the mantra, “Service First, Flair Second.”
“No matter how many awards I won for cocktail programs I created, I just couldn’t seem to get people to see that just because you can flip a bottle does not automatically mean you can’t make a great cocktail," he says. "So I started competing in mixology competitions and in a short time racked up fivw national mixology championships.”
Flair bartending involves preparing and serving drinks in a stylish and interesting way. Working flair doesn’t have to be complicated or risky to look good. It involves tossing, spinning and flipping glasses, bottles, shaker tins, garnishes, straws, napkins, strainers, ice and ice scoops. A good flair bartender should be able to do something cool and captivating with every object behind the bar.
The considerable exposure in the trade media he received prompted operators to contact Ellis for his help enhancing their training, promotions and drink programs. That eventually led him to jump from behind the bar and form the beverage consultancy, Bar Magic of Las Vegas Inc. His consulting gigs have ranged from revamping Caesars Palace’s bar programs in 2000 to outfitting the Waikiki EDITION Hotel in Honolulu with a fully fresh classic and contemporary bar program.
“We now consult with clients on everything from business plans and pro formas, CAD drawings and identity design straight through to training, cocktail development and opening services," he says. "We also specialize in risk and profitability assessment, union reclassifications, marketing programs, brand programming and supplier relations. Basically my company can help any beverage-centric business.”
As a beverage expert, there are several things bartenders do that make Ellis cringe.
“Ask the majority of bartenders what the most important skill a bartender can possess and they’re likely going to mention whatever skill they happen to be best at,” he explains. “That’s absolute nonsense. Great bartenders need to be able to do it all and do it all while holding their heads up, smiling and making money for their owner and themselves. They need to be good at everything, which necessitates them constantly learning more about their craft and trade. I still can’t pick an olive on the first try and my stirring technique needs a lot of work.”
Ellis likes to advise rookie bartenders to embrace not knowing things and accept that making mistakes is the most effective way to learn.
“I think it’s crucial for bartenders to not think they’ve mastered anything,” he says. “Mastery is just another word for complacency. There’s always something new to learn. Likewise, bartenders need always have fun behind the bar. Nobody likes a serious bartender, so they need to smile and keep it light. Their real job is to make people feel good. Do that and all the rest will fall into place.”
Ellis also has practical advice for beverage operators who are looking to improve their working relationship with their bar staff.
“Without exception, the most important thing a beverage operator can do is genuinely care about his or her staff’s success and welfare. If not, why in the world would the staff genuinely care about theirs? Operators need to invest in their staff’s success and the staff will reciprocate in kind.”