”The bar will always have its place in society — it's that comfortable spot between work and home. Million-dollar deals aren't made over a cup at Starbucks, they happen in bars.” — Star
"Flair bartending," the practice of tossing, juggling, and otherwise manipulating bottles and bar equipment for the entertainment of patrons, rose to popularity in the 1980s through managerial encouragement at the once-ascendant TGI Friday's restaurant chain. In 1988 the art played a prominent role in the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. In recent years, though, flairing (which is indeed also used as a verb by practitioners) has largely been relegated to tourist resorts, cruise ships, and Las Vegas.
5025 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Thirty-three-year-old Jason Wright, better known to friends, customers, and just about everyone as Star the Bartender, has been pouring drinks at BBQ House in Ocean Beach since the restaurant expanded in 2015, adding a full-service bar where towers of vinyl once sat stacked at Cow Records (the music store has moved across to the north side of Newport Avenue).
Before settling in La Mesa a few years ago, Star first came to San Diego in sixth grade, one stopover in his father's military career that included homes in Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, Minneapolis, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. His career to this point likewise has been nomadic — we meet for a drink at Tony's, another O.B. institution, where he spilled forth on flair both behind the bar and in a competitive setting, world travels, and running away to join the circus.
"I didn't want to break my back for the rest of my life," he said of his first job as a welder in Vacaville, halfway between Sacramento and the Bay Area. "I wanted to find something I was good at that didn't really seem like work.
"I found a bartending class on Groupon for, like, $350 — it lasted three weeks, and I graduated at the top of my class. I started getting into the flair scene as soon as I graduated. I wanted to set myself apart, because in class there were 13 or 14 of us and no one looked like me. I stumbled on a DVD of someone throwing a martini shaker around — it was fairly basic, behind the back, a couple flips…but a few months later I decided to go on YouTube and look for videos of other flairing. Then I locked myself in a room and practiced, practiced, practiced.
"Once I thought I was good enough, I entered a competition and ended up in first place."
That, however, didn't immediately result in barroom heroism.
"I ended up in touch with one of the guys from Circus Vargas, and he put me on as one of the clowns. I was the guy in front juggling," Star said, laughing. That gig lasted about five months.
"It was an experience, for sure. The bendy girl was cool, she was down to earth. She was really a good friend, but the rest of the crew was in their own zone. When you're traveling around with the same people all the time, they've all got their own friends and cliques.
"The pay is…uhhh…well, it's regular," he continued, describing a situation that seems anything but regular, with the troop relying on a cut of ticket sales for pay above the motel and food tabs covered by the company. "I wasn't there that long — I would get maybe $200–$500 every couple weeks."
Back in town, Star returned to honing his bartending skills, aided by the stint as a professional juggler. He said of the seven or eight local open competitions he's entered, all but one ended with him taking first place.
"The only event I've entered and didn't win was more focused on the mixology end. I brought what I thought were some pretty good four- and five-ingredient recipes, but these guys are busting out torches, mixing up their own fresh purées…. I think I finished somewhere around one-thousandth place."
While Star has competed mainly in regional events around Southern California, there are at least two groups — the World Flair Association and the Flair Bartending Association — that host events drawing entries from across the globe.
"If you get into the circuit, you can compete almost year-round. But that takes you across the States, to different countries — I've got some sponsors, but they can't bankroll me to all of these events," he lamented.
Star mentioned one competition win that led to another stint on the road.
"I got picked up to go to Port St. Lucie, Florida, and from there they sent me to Paris, China, Punta Cana [a resort town in the Dominican Republic], and back to Florida," Star said of a contract with Club Med, purveyor of all-inclusive resort stays in exotic locales.
The resort's contract pay scale turned out to be less than appealing, so he struck out on his own, taking up residence at BBQ House Friday through Monday evenings and working private events and promotional photography shoots the rest of the week. He also goes in search of other practitioners of flair, though he rarely has luck.
"I'm always looking for other bartenders that are into flairing. Not only do I want to check out what they're doing, I just like to get out and enjoy the experience and the mood it sets from the other side of the bar. But I've never seen anyone throwing flair into their routine here in San Diego. There are a few guys I've heard about, including one here in O.B., but it always seems we've got the same work schedules, so I never get to go and see for myself."