For all the illustrious appeal that the world of flair offered, in the beginning seemingly the reverse could be said for the appeal of the world of mixology. To write the script of the crazy flair bartender filled with every kind of exiting onomatopoeia known to mankind, seemed to have more of an instant appeal than that of the mixologist. Flair was presented in a sort of comic book style page turner, whiles the novel of the mixologist, would be filled with whimsical adjectives designed to set scores of majestic scenes only paragraphs of intellectual writing could convey. I mean who wouldn’t be attracted to a few BOOMS, BANGS & FLASHES!
Everybody wants to be the Superhero; no-one wants to be the sidekick. In reality the stories are not different at all; in fact they are the same story only told from different points of view. Flair bartending takes ages to master. A young bartender will have to spend hours, upon hours, very often alone repetitively practicing a single move for weeks if not months on end before he masters it enough to perform it on stage. No-one can get around this, hours of practice need to go into designing a winning flair routine and there are no shortcuts.
The different point of view comes in, when the Sidekick gives his rendition of the same tale, only this time seen through his own eyes. While the flair bartender spends his time practicing sequences of moves which will hopefully turn out to be a winning routine. The mixologist spends his own time reading. Researching recipes, studiously applying his time to understanding everything there is to know about a drink. One could start the conversation as to which of the two bartenders types would be the superhero, and which would be the sidekick.
In a debate, evidence about how technical each style is can be presented, and an argument from each side would be as compelling as the other. Both of them ultimately can be described as a question of pure mathematics. On one hand you have the flair bartender who applies his time to the focus of the speed of a single rotation of a bottle. He considers the base size of a bottle and how it is going to revolve enough distance trying to find its resting destiny in a shaker opening, which has also been rotating simultaneously on its own axis, both of which need to fit inside each other with one element being only millimetres bigger than the other.
Similarly, the mixologist will spend his time applying infinite combinations of ingredients in varying measurements thereof, trying to find the one best possible rendition of a recipe which exists only in the mind of its creator. The research of the drink can seem to take eons, after which the start only presents itself and then from there the game of cracking the combination code of the perfect drink can begin. At the end a recipe, which has cycled through an infinite number of combinations of how not to make the same drink can be cancelled out before a rendition of its best self can be presented.
In both cases it’s a question of either millimetres or millilitres and in both cases the odds of becoming a true champion in either discipline, would be one in a thousand.
And then from up in the sky, FLASH! There is a sonic sound BOOM! The timing of the landing cracks the ground for miles as our superhero hits the ground in a suitable pose borrowed from the movie Terminator BANG! Then, queue the inspiring music; follow the camera panning in for a first revealing close up of our new Superhero, Ryan Duvenage.
That’s what it should’ve looked like when Ryan inauspiciously stepped onto the bartending scene. Instead he wore no obvious cape, he never jumped into a phone booth to tear his serious clothes off and while we were all vying for pole position in the flair limelight Ryan happily occupied the shadows of the unknown element of bartending which was defined by the actual drink. For many of us, flipping multiplexes of 4 and 5 objects in the air became the object of our crazy obsession, and the thought of what the actual drink tasted like wasn’t important at all.
It took an act of sheer bravery for any bartender of the time to willingly go down the forgotten road of mixology, all the while knowing that the bartending glory in those days was obviously not there. Very often the ones, who don’t seek it, are the ones who get the greatest recognition of all. In the world today, where flair is dormant, and mixology surges Ryan is the capitalistic proprietor of all the limelight as the silver surfing alien from the future.
Among his list of accolades he achieved as the premier mixologist in South Africa were his back to back wins at the SA National Championships in 2009, and 2010. I had a front row seat to that show, where the two of us travelled in succession to two IBA World Championships in Berlin and Singapore. I knew how great Ryan was as a mixologist, but it wasn’t until 2009 in Berlin when I saw just how revolutionary he was as a mixing genius. In 2009 he reached the highest ranking at the IBA World Championships of any SA bartender before him when he eventually finished in 7th position. The kicker was the recipe he used to achieve that, a rendition of a honey sour which had only 4 ingredients in it. It was a for bearer of the simplistic classical drink movement which only gained traction many years later.
Ryan was unlike any bartender I knew at the time. He was a kind of anti-bartender. The less than obvious hero, who broke the mold of redefining what was important in the art of bartending. He was an advocate for the perfect drink, a pioneer of the uncharted and a discoverer of the lost and forgotten world of drinks most recently rejuvenated in modern times.
Not only did he lead the charge of amazingly talented mixologists in this country to come, he importantly for me, provided the very tonic that the flair world needed to digest in order to prevent it from being reduced as a skill likened to that of Vegas lounge performers and jugglers and connected it back to bartending.
He saved flair! So for me, there can be no greater hero.
Ryan Duvenage at the SA National Championships at the Good Food & Wine Show, 2009.