I’ve always said while competing on the flair bartending circuit, that when I designed competitive flair routines, that they had to be made up of moves which were more difficult than Vic Pires, be more entertaining than Clinton Weir, and be more technical than Michael Stephenson.
By all accounts Mike is not from this world. I’ve always been convinced that he was genetically modified in a laboratory upon the furthest outlying planet in our neighboring sister solar system, Andromeda. The thought of competing against Mike even now fills me with flat panic! His routines were so technically composed, and even more so flawlessly delivered with robot precision. He would create a python like grip on your own performance because you always knew in the back of your mind that he left you no room for error. Unlike the ‘go for broke’ attitude of a bartender like Victor Pires who single-handedly dismantled many a bartending line up, Mike was a human calculator with little to no errors in his functioning system. He was always the most prepared, spec configured, ultimately ‘laser-like’ focused and just as humble in victory as he was in defeat. A truer gentleman of the bar, you will never meet!
In 2002, a black bakkie pulled up to my bartender laden apartment. I say that because I lived with 4 other bartenders at the time. One of which was Gary Knoetze, who I had just edged out a win against in the CPT regionals at GrandWest Casino. The man driving the black bakkie was the ‘already known bartending icon’ Kurt Schlechter. With the purpose of delivering to us a VHS tape that contained the recorded routines of the Durban regional finalists including the winning routine of one Michael Stephenson and his runner up Tim Townsend. You must understand these were the days before Youtube, so the importance of receiving this kind of Intel was invaluable, and hugely exciting!
This was the year of the very first SA National Flair Competition, in a time of our lives where we were all clean shaven (perhaps too young to even shave) and up until that time competing against people in another area code was as rare as even wearing a beard and in so saying, winning a regional comp was seen at the time as the best a man could get. See what I did there!
Before even meeting him, I was deconstructing his routines, looking for the unapparent ‘chink’ in his armour and 20 years down the line, I still see no weaknesses. We have since seen other bartenders arise in the same mould, Mark Gedrych in the second wave of flair domination and then most recently the ever dominant George Hunter. All of these guys display the same qualities in their craft, but Mike is the originator of the blueprint for bartending perfection.
As a side note, a load of good that video tape analysis helped me. Fresh from returning from my first World Title shot in Dubai; I went to Durban to compete in the first SA National Flair Competition and picked up my first disqualification due to a time violation. I spent the final day feeling really sorry for myself, and could do nothing more than watch Mike roar to a runner up position after finishing behind the eventual first ever winner of the SA Nationals in 2002, Gary Knoetze.
Gary would go on to compete in his first World title shot later that year in Bled, Slovenia at the 51st IBA Meeting & Conference. Mike would have his shot at his first World title 2 years later at the same competition this time the 53rd Meeting of the IBA in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mike is now the owner of Lucky Shaker cocktail bar. A bar which has led the way for bartending in South Africa, even if from the base off of the smallest cocktail Metro being in Durban. His success in comps continues, his travels oversees for international exposure relents not, his contribution to our local industry sees him confirmed as one of the biggest bartending leaders and sources of inspiration South Africa will ever see.
Michael Stephenson in competition, News Cafe Menyln Park.