World Flair Association Grand Slam comes to Edinburgh for the first time: we check out the competition at Baillie Ballerson

It’s hard to talk about flair without referencing the 1988 film Cocktail.
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In it, Tom Cruise played a young bartender, who flips, juggles and chucks the bottles into the air. The ladies swooned. The men did too.

Indeed, cocktail flair does have slightly ‘80s connotations, though it was also featured in Coyote Ugly in 2000, so obviously also had a moment then.

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Since then, mixologists have probably become slightly less theatrical. They’ll do their expert muddling, stirring and squeezing, but flinging the shaker then spinning the glass on their finger is seen as a bit OTT.

Stepan Simanek Pic: Nick MailerStepan Simanek Pic: Nick Mailer
Stepan Simanek Pic: Nick Mailer

However, the art is still very much alive, as proved by the World Flair Association. They held their 14th Grand Slam Competition for the first time outside London this week, on October 17 at the new ball pool cocktail bar Baillie Ballerson in Edinburgh. It’s the ideal location, as this new venue is possibly the only one in the Scottish capital where the bar staff do flairing, while serving up the signature drinks. These include the Island Time, which involves a blow torch and a roasted marshmallow.

This year, the annual competition attracted mixologists from as far afield as Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Peru and Italy, as well as a couple from here in Edinburgh, all of whom hoped to emerge as World Slam Grand Champion, which is considered the biggest prize in flair bartending. Sponsored by Hooch, Dead Man’s Finger Rum and Shanky’s Whip Whisky, this year’s competition was judged by Tony Adams, a world champion, as well as previous winners Simon Rogers and Antonio Mantelli, who score the participants on originality, choreography and difficulty.

I arrive halfway through the second round of the all day-competition.

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The crowd seems to mainly consist of hospitality people, who aren’t working since it’s a Monday night and are enthusiastically rooting for their favourites. They collectively hold their breath as each competitor takes to the small stage, which features a glass bar. It’s topped with equipment – tin cups, flair bottles, shakers, the sponsors’ drinks – and there’s a tray of ice behind it. I hope nobody slips on a renegade cube.

Roman Zapata winning Pic: Nick MailerRoman Zapata winning Pic: Nick Mailer
Roman Zapata winning Pic: Nick Mailer

None of the contestants wear white shirts, like Cruise. They’re all in black, seem to be in their 20s and this seems cooler than Cocktail – like a breakdancing or beatboxing battle. I don’t see any women performing, but apparently there were a few earlier in the day. All the competitors have to make the same drink and garnish it with fresh mint.

The compere counts them in. “You have four minutes, starting – now”.

There is no chat from each contestant, they’re just straight into their routine, while the DJ plays their chosen song or songs. Four minutes turns out to be a very long time.

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The first I watch is Takanori Ido from Logue Bar in Osaka, Japan, who sips water nervously, before going on stage to loud cheers. Then there are a couple of Italians – Ciro Marino from a professional flair bartending school, PFB Napoli, and bartender Enrico Meloni, both of whom have opted for house music soundtracks.

WFA contestant Pic: Nick MailerWFA contestant Pic: Nick Mailer
WFA contestant Pic: Nick Mailer

The Italians definitely have the edge when it comes to showmanship. They keep on smiling, even when, like most of the other contestants, they drop a cup and it goes bouncing across the floor. In contrast, the Belgian and Finnish contestants look crestfallen whenever they make any mistakes, even though they are just as skilled.

Nobody actually smashes anything, probably because they’re using specially designed bottles made of shatterproof PVC. These are flipped into the air, spun on the edge of a hand and thrown three feet skywards. Some juggle three cups, then they land inside each other, like Russian dolls, with a clop, clop, clop. There is a tiny bit of fire, some lip synching, and a lot of getting the crowd to clap along.

One contestant does a routine to Elvis, and someone else goes for EMF’s Unbelievable, which is a random track from my youth. The preferred musical genres are hip-hop and house, though one excellent and long haired contestant chooses a rock soundtrack. He rhythmically bounces a cup off his elbow to a guitar riff. I hope he scores highly for originality.

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There is huge support for Stepan Simanek from the Czech Republic. His fans unfurl a Czech flag from the first floor balcony, some of them are wearing Steps T-shirts, and they whistle and cheer. Indeed, he’s smooth, and his moves make him look like a contemporary dancer.

Roman Zapata in the Baillie Ballerson ball pool Pic: Nick MailerRoman Zapata in the Baillie Ballerson ball pool Pic: Nick Mailer
Roman Zapata in the Baillie Ballerson ball pool Pic: Nick Mailer

“Watch out for Michael Moreni, he works here and he’s brilliant,” a member of staff tells me. Has she ever tried flair? “I did, one of the bar staff tried to teach me, but I was rubbish”.

I’m sure I could do it. I can juggle three tangerines, after all.

Moreni is next, is excellent and has the charisma to work the crowd, who are going bananas. I would totally order an Island Time from him. He windmills bottles, cheekily uses a cup as if he’s answering a phone mid-juggle, and finishes by perching his finished drink on a stirrer that’s balancing on his forehead.

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However, the judges seem to prefer Roman Zapata from Flair Academy Milano in Argentina. Indeed, he appears to defy gravity, with a look of intense concentration. Apparently, he has won 46 competitions worldwide, and is a flair trainer. He goes on to win the entire competition, though Moreni comes in second and Deniss Trifanovs of Latvia is third.

“I’ve been judging bartending competitions like this for 15 years and this is the tightest competition I’ve judged,” says Adams.

After watching the winners, I realise that I’ll never have comparable skills.

Despite this, while performing my ablutions that night, I attempt to flip my bottle of contact lens fluid. Big mistake.

Baillie Ballerson, 14 Forrest Road, Edinburgh,