Cocktails and Dreams! If you ask any bartender in the world, well at least those of which aren’t actually studying to become investment bankers or some other socially acceptable contributor of society, they will all tell you the same thing; every one of them commonly has 2 burning ambitions in life which unites them all without exception.
Firstly, they all have dreams of summiting the world of cocktails in becoming a World Champion in one form or another and secondly, they are all hugely inspired to fingerprint their own character coded in the DNA of a ‘never been seen or done before’ cocktail bar, in which they both tend bar and own the bar at the same time.
In the movie Cocktail, Tom Cruise does exactly that. He spends his time holding down a beach bar in the Caribbean for three years, living off peanuts and making cash “off the books”, before returning to New York to open up his own bar, predictably called O’Flannigans.
For all bartenders, as long as you are prepared to work harder than anyone else, and as long as you are not surrounded by drunken fools, both of these ambitions are totally achievable. The working hard thing is easy, the warning to not surround yourself with drunken fools, not so much.
After its release in 1988, it would take 12 years for the inspiration of the Movie Cocktail to blow up in South Africa. When it did, it would be like an H-bomb detonating in the Ralik Chain Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, and in the nuclear fall-out every young 20 something bartender in service behind a bar would be infected. Some seemed genetically mutated to flair, while others mutated themselves accordingly, but the reach was like a pebble in a pond and soon the ripples reached every edge.
In sheer volume, the biggest contributor to the pool of ace flair bartenders came from the eastern coast of the country, Durban. In the first SA Nationals, there were 63 competing bartenders, and maybe only 15 of them came from Cape Town or Johannesburg. However, the final round only had two bartenders from Durban in it and they were Tim Townsend (aka Flip Cashwell) and Mike Stephenson (Aka Larry, because of the Bad Boys movie character - Mike Lowry). Five came from Joburg in the form Allan Rob Wright, Victor Pires, Douglas Hardres Williams, Zander and Gavin Kruger. The final three came from Cape Town namely Clinton Weir, Leroy Maritz and Gary Knoetze.
The bartender who made the biggest impression on me in that competition didn’t come from the finals. It came from a jovially gifted, good mood radiating, always smiling rookie named Alex Farnell. He wasn’t doing any damage at the time in flair, but he had an army of smiling happy friends cheering him along with infection. I remember thinking to myself “Who is this guy, and why is he so adored?”
While I’m giving away everybody’s nick names, now would be a good time to disclose how Alex picked up the nick name Bundy. He got labelled that because of his relevance to the Dad character from the TV show ‘Married with Children’ (Al Bundy) because he was the only one working at the time and supporting all of his friends like a dad in a dis-functioning family.
After Nationals, the hits kept on coming in Durban. It was like a conveyor belt of flair bartenders being ripped off the production line and I think the only other thing that was being overworked with more vigor in Durban in those days was the bottling line of Smirnoff Vodka.
Every time I went to Durban for a comp there were more guys popping up. In true Durban style they came in waves. In the first wave came Jeff Magic, Wesley Harvey and Jono Dempster. There was a Cosmo show on DSTV at the time which featured a place called Billy the Bums and their bartenders and I remember seeing them all on the show because that’s where they all worked. Billy’s actually did the most major service in producing the best flair bartenders in the country and one cannot discount how much they invested into, not only the local talent in Durban, but the country in total because they had stores in every city.
In the waves to come after them saw Tim, Mike, Alex and the ever sharp Joe De Wet. Then came Tristan Bond, Shaun Kendall, Severin Bang and a guy named Bernard Boshoff, who I will never forget as a true champion of this world after he survived a life threatening ordeal where he nearly drowned to death in a pool.
One of trips to Durban saw me have an accident in a rental car while talking to Alex on the phone (not illegal at the time) trying to get directions to where they were all practicing in a park in Windermere Rd. Alex phoned me constantly during that whole ordeal making sure I was okay, and after we traded the necessaries I was with the boys at the park breaking bottles until sunset.
In all the comps I have entered, Alex was always there in full regalia. It didn’t matter where in the country it was he would compete in very city at every comp just getting all the exposure he could while designing the slickest of flair routines, one which would eventually take him to the bartending summit of flair in 2006.
Alex didn’t make it easy for himself. There were easier roads to take, but as I said at the top of this piece, if you are prepared to work harder than anyone else then it wouldn’t matter which road you were going to take, eventually you were going to get there. Taking the road to Joburg to try and squeeze a win out over Victor Pires in his home city was one of the most difficult things you could do, and in so saying what Alex did in 2006 was nothing short of climbing Bartending Everest to beat the defending champ on home turf. I’m sure if you ask him, Alex would say that he would do it all over again and even more for his first SA National title.
Alex went onto to represent South Africa at the IBA World Championships in Thessaloniki, Greece that year, and remained an active bartender for years after outliving everyone else in the game and proving that he had an insatiable thirst for competing more so than anyone else.
His ‘Shook me all night long’ routine still plays live in my head as one of the favourite shows I have ever watched. His unwavering support never subsided; his routines were jeered with effervescence always. He is a person with the greatest disposition in life. If I could turn him into a tiny action figure and keep him in my pocket for when I feel low, life would just be better.
If I didn’t understand why he was so loved before I knew him, all I needed to do was spend a couple of minutes talking to him to make me realise, the rest of the 20 years have just been purely an enjoyable bonus.
Cocktails and Dreams all the way Bundles!
Alex Farnell at The King Of Africa Competition, Carnival City Casino 2005.