Flair to Soar: Harris balances cups, wisdom.
Flair to Soar: Harris balances cups, wisdom. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In Aztec mythology, the half-bird, half-serpent Quetzalcoatl is the god of creation. Moe Harris has the deity’s image etched in thick black ink into his biceps and rubs the tattoo swiftly as he talks. “Quetzalcoatl represents the fact that we are all creators,” says Harris. “I create bartenders.”

Since 2002, the 28-year-old Manassas resident has built barkeeps at the Professional Bartending School of Arlington. Twice a day, five days a week, Harris leads classes in mixology, alcohol awareness, and the history of liquor. But his goal is loftier than creating order-takers and drink-mixers: He creates personalities. In six years at the school, Harris estimates he’s molded about 3,600 of them.

Their photos line the walls of the school: Tony at VIP, a muscular giant with slicked hair, serious cheekbones, and arms that anchor the bar; Shani at Platinum, clutching a bottle of Jose Cuervo and sporting a choke collar that opens to a clinging, spandex top; Jodi at the Brass Monkey, a petite shock of blue eye shadow, pink lipstick, and Dolly Parton hair.

But a personality like Harris’ is hard to teach in a 40-hour bartending crash course. In 13 years, he’s evolved into a tip-making machine, and he is always on. Harris is from Fairfax by way of Acapulco: Born in Virginia, he dropped out of high school at the age of 15, moved to Mexico, ran out of cash, and started serving drinks. “I dropped out of school because I couldn’t do something that I hated,” says Harris. “I started bartending because I couldn’t do anything else.”

Harris talks fast, pours fast, and moves fast. Take, for example, the story of his marriage: After meeting Leanna, a former Coyote Ugly bartender, through the competition circuit, the two traveled to Canada in 2006 for an international bartending show. “Drinks were had,” Harris says, and the pair made out. One month later, the circuit found them in Vegas, where, again, “drinks were had,” says Harris. This time, when the two awoke from their hazy night out, they decided to get hitched. “At that point, we were totally sober,” Harris swears. They now have a month-old daughter, Lily.

Behind the bar and in front of a class of 10, Harris winks. He mugs. He makes finger guns. He showers himself with carbonated water. He dances. He imitates Frenchmen. He never stops talking. Any chance he gets, he throws bottles: He pops fifths of liquor onto the back of his hand, rolls them up his arm and over his chin, tosses them behind his back, and spins them over his head. For Harris, this is the pinnacle of pour personality: flair bartending.

Most people know flair ­bartending—essentially, juggling with bar tools—from the 1988 Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail or from the red-polo-wearing bartenders at their local T.G.I. Friday’s. Harris resents that. “T.G.I. Friday’s is the worst thing that’s ever happened to flair bartending,” Harris says. “The second is Tom Cruise. When I see bad flair, it pisses me off.”

Harris has been immersed in flair bartending for five years, since catching a bartender perform a simple stop move: throwing a bottle and landing it square on the back of the hand. “I spent weeks practicing that one move,” says Harris. “I knew nothing of the subculture.” Now, he’s a card-carrying member of the Flair Bartenders’ Association, performs with the D.C.-based Pour Boys flair bartending troupe, and competes internationally at the professional level. On the side, he mentors other bartenders in the art of throwing bottles. Though the Professional Bartending School offered a flair bartending class a few years ago, it was canceled due to space and safety issues, says Harris. “We didn’t have that much room to be throwing bottles around. In order to experiment with flair bartending, we’ve got to have more space.”

So a few weeks ago, Harris moved into a new Manassas home and set to work converting his two-car garage into a makeshift flair bartending practice center, complete with wall-to-wall cushioned floor mats, a ­regulation-sized bar, and a lot of glass. Harris has taught clients including Elliot Segal of Elliot in the Morning and 300 women inside D.C.’s now-defunct Coyote Ugly operation. “It takes a very, very long time to teach someone to flair,” says Harris. “I started five years ago, and I was horrible until about the last couple years.” Now, says Harris, “I can catch a bottle on my face. I can open a Corona without a bottle opener in 20 ways you’ve never even thought of.”

The proto-bartenders at the Professional Bartending School aren’t quite there yet. At a class break, the students step behind the school’s fake bar, fully stocked with whiskey bottles of caramel-colored water, Old Spice shaving cream in place of whipped topping, and dish soap for layered shots. Harris switches on a stereo that’s pumping Rihanna and Snoop Dogg. He calls out drink orders. At this point, the students don’t make a very good cocktail: Champagne is confused with sparkling wine. A triple shooter yields three uneven concoctions. The cosmopolitan with a twist lacks the twist.

“The point is just to make them feel comfortable in a bar environment,” Harris says, as the students fumble with soda guns, muddling sticks, and brandy snifters. “The rest will come with time.” Many of the school’s students, like Harris, have turned to shilling booze after becoming disillusioned with more traditional paths. “Six years ago, we got a lot of people who were bottomed out from the dot-com bust,” says Harris. “Now, we’re seeing a lot of Realtors.” For them, bartending is steadier. “When the economy is good, people like to get hammered,” Harris explains. “When the economy is bad, people like to get hammered.”

Still, not everyone can be taught to be a bartender. “If you want to be a bartender, you’re probably already a people person. Nerds and assholes don’t usually want to become bartenders,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “A lot of bartenders then turn into assholes.”

While he talks, Harris plays with a glass, flipping it in the air and tossing it around his body. The glass slips and shatters against the floor. In a rare moment, Harris appears embarrassed; he leans his arms on the bar and feels at Quetzalcoatl. “People ask me if I ever drop bottles,” says Harris, “I say, ‘Yeah, what the hell do you think? I throw glass in the air!’”

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