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He competed against bartenders who could pull flowers and live doves from bottles of champagne, toss flaming brandies in the air and catch them with one unscorched hand, concoct four arcane cocktails in 30 seconds, and recite on cue the ingredients of more than 100 blended drinks. Despite the stellar competition, Miami's Jeff Brown, age 32, won a national bartending crown in January. Judges acknowledged both his skill and charm. But the Best Bartender in America -- according to two previous national cocktail-mixing Olympics and one international contest in London -- was also fired from a Coconut Grove bar two months ago. And he's vowed never to return to the work he loves again.
His still-loyal ex-patrons at Cafe Tu Tu Tango are stunned. If you're young and new in a beautiful yet perilous city, the right bar can seem more vital to survival than a dream job or an ideal residence. "In Miami apartments and asshole bosses come and go; a great bartender like Jeff is your social security," says Ron Fleischer, age 24. "Regulars could get tips about new jobs or places to crash from him or leave messages for each other, gossip, make plans for the night. After he introduced me to people here, I stopped feeling like this in Miami," he hunches his shoulders down, "and started walking like 'You belong in this city!' I can't believe we lost him over one dumb thing."
Brown was fired for having drunk on duty a Grand Marnier that some regulars toasting a birthday had bought for him. "They drop $200 twice a week in the bar; it would have been rude to refuse," he sighs. "It's the first time I broke the bar's rule against drinking on the job." It happened a year after word of Brown's superior bartending technique lured scouts from Beefeater Gin's International Bartending Competition in the door to watch him. The liquor reps told Brown they had heard he had a dynamic personality and asked him to prove it. He juggled some bottles, told them a "hilarious joke" ("No, I can't remember it"), and mixed the obscure Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari).
The Beefeater men offered him an all-expenses-paid trip to London to compete against sixteen other finalists from around the world. The selection process in Asia sounds far more methodical than does the slapdash American. The Korean winner, who did magic tricks while mixing, beat 1500 bartenders in his country; the Japanese contestant vied against 1000. To be named Best American Bartender, Brown beat the other finalist from the U.S.A. by winning tenth place to a New Yorker's fourteenth.
Test categories included technical knowledge of cocktail ingredients, speed mixing, free style -- where barkeeps display their best Tom Cruise moves -- and creation/invention. Contestants picked six ingredients from a hat and had to create a drinkable cocktail from them. Brown invented the "Elizabeth Taylor" on the spot (bourbon, banana liqueur, blue curaaao and, of course, gin. The resulting drink color vaguely resembles the actress's violet-blue eyes).
He's added the title to his resume now that he's temping and job hunting. And contemplating a big life change.
"Bartending's a great job if you don't mind topping out at $40,000 a year -- but it gets old," Brown says. "The attitudes get old. The drunks get old. It's just that I love my work. Bartending is a craft; not everyone can learn. It's partly the art of knowing which liquors complement and enhance each other and which overpower and clash. And it's a lot of knowing how to match them to each personality and mood that shows up at the bar. You're mixing an atmosphere, not just drinks."
A bartender at a great bar, Brown says, creates a feeling of endless possibilities for fun, solace, and even sex. "That is what you call the bar's energy." The bottles of clear, ruby red, mahogany, emerald, azure blue, and gold liquids are the fuel that attracts the crowd and loosens inhibitions.
Brown stumbled onto his mixing gift while waiting tables at TGIFriday's at age 21. When the bartender didn't show up, the maitre d' ordered Brown to pinch-hit. "A lady asked for a dry martini straight up. I didn't know what that was," Brown remembers. "I said, 'Ma'am, I've been in the army the past few years, away from fancy drinks.'" She told him how to make it. A few months later he finished at the top of the restaurant chain's national bartending competition. Tips paid for his business degree from Miami-Dade Community College, which could have led to an office job, but he loved his work too much to leave.
"A so-called friend -- a pharmaceutical rep my age that put on twenty pounds since graduation, married, miserable A would see me at the bar and say, 'You're still here? I thought you had plans,'" Brown fumes. "And I'd think, 'Yeah, but you hate your work. I take real pride in mine.' I know my regulars and their rhythms. Mary comes in on Monday and she's had her first date with that new guy. Bill and his friends come in on Tuesday and he's been down. And I know what to do for them. The bar paid me $2.13 an hour. Regulars' tips paid my rent, utilities, and phone. I was entertainment or relief for all kinds of people. I had old people for regulars. I had regulars who were handicapped who knew at my bar they'd never get a snide glance."
Nightlife hours did, however, prevent him from having what he wants most now: his own life. He had several girlfriends during his four years at Cafe Tu Tu Tango's bar, but they always dumped him because he worked nights, holidays, and weekends. He's decided to use his degree and bartending contacts to seek a job as a sales representative for a liquor company. Yet he still drops by Shuckers, a North Bay Village bar where bartenders hang out after work. Giant cutouts of Red Stripe beer-bottle caps and frosty glasses of Shiner Bock decorate the walls. Younger bartenders brag about their latest bottle-juggling feats. The ones who've hit 30 agree with Brown's remark: "As you get older, you leave the flair stuff behind." They boast about their more intangible skills, like finding the perfect drink and words to help a regular through a complicated mood.
They concur that the moments before last call consist mostly of, as a South Beach club bartender puts it, "desperation and grab-assing." But these bartenders, who love their work as much as Brown, claim they can blend for customers the most delicate atmosphere of all: romantic. Sometimes, if they give two patrons just the right flavored drinks and encouragement, the bartenders insist they can help even a steel-plated heart to melt. "That's why my dream job would be to teach younger guys who'll love the craft everything I know," Brown says. "It's an art. And a really great bartender's cocktails aren't just drinks. They're like potions."
A great bartender creates a feeling of endless possibilities for fun, solace, and even sex.
Bartender Jeff Brown at home with his plywood portrait, a gift from his ex-boss