Bartender Danny Donaldson knows the velocity of vodka and the g-force of gin. The popular staffer at the Lodge at Sonoma’s Carneros Bistro is a practitioner of “flairing,” an acrobatic admixture of equal parts bartending and, well, Cirque du Soleil. Bottles soar above Donaldson’s head, twirl behind his back and land – usually – in the firm grip of his capable hands. On the rare occasion that a bottle eludes his reach, the 22-year-old just smiles, picks it up and starts again.
As portrayed by Donaldson, flairing seems as much of a philosophy as it is a spectacle. Whatever you do, however, never utter the word “juggler” in earshot of a flair bartender – that is, unless you enjoy watching bottles and your drink fly through the air.
“We always joke about that at competitions. People always say ‘You’re a great juggler.’ We’re not jugglers. We hate it when people call us jugglers,” Donaldson said with a wry smile.
Aerial artistry such as Donaldson’s may have made its first splash into public consciousness with the Tom Cruise film “Cocktail,” in which the actor plays a bottle-flipping lothario. As can be expected, Donaldson is nonplussed by the comparison but does say Cruise did perform his own flair routines in the film, which, oddly, was directed by another Donaldson of no relation.
Tom Cruise has nothing on Danny Donaldson.
This reporter had his belly to bar as Donaldson virtually levitated bottles while pouring myriad drinks to the marked awe of passersby. Even his fellow staffers would sometimes pause when passing by; of course, they might merely be waiting to make a safe dash behind the bar.
“Flairing is entertainment. When people come to a bar they want to have drinks and they want to have fun. If you’ve got a good bartender who can flip bottles at the same time then you have a good bar,” appraised Donaldson, who first began flairing three years ago after his move to California from Alabama. He had taken a gig as a barback at Broadway Showgirls, a nightclub in San Francisco, but soon bristled at being the anonymous understudy behind the bar.
“I hated it,” recalled Donaldson, then fresh off his duties as army ranger in Afghanistan. “My buddy was the manager and he started teaching me flair. I’d seen him do it and, honestly, I saw all the girls standing there just going ‘Ooooh!’”
An apprenticeship soon ensued, and before long Donaldson was developing his skills on his mentor’s flair bottles, which are unbreakable simulacra of the real thing that even are labeled with popular brand names. Many bars use one-liter bottles versus the smaller, more easily handled 750 milliliter bottles with which most flair bartenders practice their craft. The size differential can mean the difference between a firm grasp and shattered glass, so Donaldson is constantly practicing. As he points out, his performance space is a veritable chamber of horrors waiting to happen.
“Mirrors, lights, tap handles. The only things I really worry about are that,” he said, pointing to a tall wrought iron food carousel on the bar, “and that,” he said with a wary eye on the credit card computer touch screen.
“The reason I worry about this is that I don’t have $3500 to pay for a new one,” he laughed, then admitted that he learned the price of the expensive computer equipment the hard way when working at another bar.
“I went to do a move where you come up out of the speed rack, catch it, pour and I tossed it but I was looking the wrong way as I tossed it and it went back right into the center of the screen. The plasma stuff went everywhere. It was bad. All bad,” he recounted.
The safety of Donaldson’s patrons comes before his showmanship, he was quick to remind. A place where Donaldson can perform unfettered by the possibility of minor mishap, however, is on the competition circuit. There he has placed well in four regional flair competitions hosted in San Francisco. In one he took first place in a showdown between 25 flair bartenders; however, he has his eyes on a bigger prize.
“Flair has evolved so much. I remember going to Vegas and watching ‘Legends of Bartending,’ which is like Mecca. Sixty-five people, invite only, the top flair bartenders in the world. They have people from Japan, France – they come from everywhere,” said Donaldson, who mentioned that next March sees the eighth incarnation of the event in which performers are scouted from the world over.
“I would love for one day to have someone sitting in the bar and say, ‘Here’s your invite,’” said Donaldson.
Danny Donaldson works Tuesday through Saturday at Carneros Bistro at the Lodge at Sonoma, 1325 Broadway, Sonoma. (707) 931-2042.
Courtesy the Sonoma Valley Sun.