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Las Vegas bartender’s flair takes him to China for international competition

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Leila Navidi

Local flair bartender Eric Parker practices in his garage in Las Vegas on Tuesday, October 2, 2012.

Flair Bartender

Local flair bartender Eric Parker practices in his garage in Las Vegas on Tuesday, October 2, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Golden Gate Casino Flair bartender practices before competition in China

Golden Gate Casino professional Flair Bartender Eric Parker goes through his routine to make his "Pearfect Sunset" cocktail before he leaves for an international competition in Beijing, Oct. 2.

In less than 24 hours, Las Vegas flair bartender Eric Parker was supposed to be on a plane to Beijing for an international bartending competition, and he had yet to finish packing.

Instead he was inside his garage Tuesday evening, squeezing in a last-minute practice and mixing his “Pearfect Sunset” cocktail. He put his iPhone on top of his black, regulation-sized flair bar and cued the techno song “Sheisty,” from an underground United Kingdom DJ.

He started with a glass; tossing it over his shoulder, spinning it in his hands and then placing it on the bar to the pace of the song’s up-tempo beat. Next he juggled a tin mixer cup and a bottle of vodka. As the song progressed, he juggled more glasses and bottles, making it seem like they were orbiting around his body.

Each move was choreographed to the tempo of the song and led to another ingredient added to the drink. At the end, he pretended to mix the strawberry mixer, lemon juice, mint, Cointreau Orange Liqueur and pear vodka that make up his cocktail.

Parker, a Golden Gate Casino flair bartender, won a competition July 30 to represent the United States in the International Bar Association Flairtending Challenge that begins today in Beijing. He will be judged on his performance as well as the quality of the drink against 52 other competitors.

Parker knows everything needs to be flawless for the competition, so he has devoted every last minute down to the night before the competition to practice.

“This competition strives for excellence,” Parker said. “This is the first year the U.S. has a representative in the flair category in the last four years, so there is a little more pressure.”

Parker said much of flair bartending comes down to muscle memory, knowing how hard or soft to toss a glass or bottle or bounce it off an elbow. To prepare for his trip to China, he has spent at least three hours a day, six days per week, practicing in his garage.

It is equipped with a regulation-sized flair bar stocked with dozens of neon-yellow tin mixer cups and various bottles of alcohol. His floor is lined with black shock mats meant to prevent dropped bottles from shattering, though it is still littered with shards of glass from previous mistakes. The mats don’t always work, Parker explains.

“The basic thing is patience,” Parker said. “You’re not going to get it overnight.”

He started by creating his drink. He went through 10 combinations of ingredients before he found the right concoction for the “Pearfect Sunset.” He then picked out his song to match the routine.

“It’s pretty important, make sure the music flows with routine,” Parker said. “This one fits very well with my routine. It is very smooth.”

Slowly he has worked to master his routine, practicing first with empty bottles before actually mixing the cocktail. Parker loves the practice. The chance to constantly work to add new moves and perfect old ones is part of what drew him six years ago to flair bartending. Then, he would work five hours a day trying to copy moves he saw in online videos.

He was learning how to be a bartender at a Chili’s in Sacramento, Calif., when his boss began spinning a tin on his palm. The move captivated Parker. His boss showed him a couple basic moves, but Parker wanted to know more. He went online and watched videos, and then would spend five hours a day trying to copy moves.

It wasn’t until he met his current roommate Phillip Zurisk, who introduced him to the competitive scene. Since then Parker has moved to Las Vegas, which he said was the U.S. mecca of flair bartending, to compete in tournaments and work as a flair bartender.

“This sport … You get out of it what you put into it,” Parker said. “That was something that pushed me as well knowing I could be as good as I wanted to be.”

Now, he has created his own style, extending his lanky arms to catch bottles and glasses, and doing double-stalls on his elbow and forearm. It gives the appearance of teetering out of control. Parker said he has worked his routine to as close to perfect as he can get.

“I’m hoping for only three or four drops, but going clean would be even better,” Parker said. “I’ve only done that once. … I got first in that competition.”

Parker has competed in more than 50 professional Flair Bartending Association competitions across the United States and Canada, and was even named tour champion in 2011.

Despite his success, he is keeping his expectations down for this competition. He said European bartenders compete in more events than Americans, allowing them to develop more-advanced skills.

“I hope to make the finals, but just to qualify for the competition has been amazing,” Parker said. “Even finishing in the top half of the pack would be good.”

First, however, he had to finish packing.

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