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Speaking of Ken Hall and legends

An exclusive Q&A with a Legends founder

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Rodrigo Delpech took first place at the 8th Annual Legends of Bartending Competition in 2006, held at Ra (now LAX).

Here comes the Nightclub & Bar Show and that means here comes the 11th annual Legends of Bartending Competition, called the “Superbowl of bartending.” Though mixology has somewhat eclipsed flair bartending in our bars and lounges in recent years (this time five years ago it was quite a different story), flair bartending is still very much a crowd pleaser and the best of the best at it are getting event better.

When Legends founder Ken Hall of High Spirits Enterprises and co-creator Alan Mays first conceived of the event in 1997, the idea was to bring all of the best flair bartenders in the world together to compete for the ultimate title in bartending. In 1999, if finally came together at Club Rio.

In the years that followed the event’s inception, Legends 7 and 8 were held at Ra, where Rodrigo Delpeche received the baton from older brother and four-time champ Christian Delpeche, and went on to become a three-time winner. So it’s fitting that the $30,000 competition returns this year to Ra’s successor, LAX on Tuesday, March 3 from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. with an awards ceremony and afterparty to follow; both events are open to the public.

In the week leading up to the big event, the Weekly picked Hall’s brain.

Las Vegas Weekly: Ken, when you were organizing the first Legends, what did you expect it to be, where did you think it might go?

Ken Hall: Our idea for Legends was to bring all of the best flair bartenders in the world together to compete for the ultimate title in bartending. We wanted to invite all of the best and all of the “Legends” in the world of flair bartending. The first year, we had no idea what to expect. We ended up with about 45 bartenders and about 300 people in attendance at the finals.

How has the role of flair behind the bar changed over the 11 years of Legends? What is its role today?

In 1999, Legends’ first year, there was one true flair bar in Las Vegas, the Voodoo Lounge, where Alan Mays (Legends co-founder) and I worked. With events like Legends and the hundreds of other events around the world each year, flair has grown exponentially. As far as behind the bar, the level of flair has gotten better and better. Events like Legends push the competitors to practice harder and harder to get better than the next guy … I think Legends acts as a catalyst for flair bartenders. Legends is the benchmark for the flair bartending world.

These days, you can be found mixing high-end drinks behind the bar at Noir. What have you observed about the rise of mixology? Has it affected the flair world?

Justin Keane took seventh place at the Eighth Annual Legends of Bartending Competition in 2006, held at Ra (now LAX).

I think in the general world of bars, mixology has grown tremendously. With bars such as Noir Bar now on line, it reminds me a lot of flair back in 1997. I think that the more success mixology bars share, the more mixology bars we are going to see, similar to the way it happened with flair bars. I really don’t think that mixology affects flair at all though, as I really feel that it is a little bit different demographic. Legends is not about mixology at all. It is about being fast, accurate, efficient and entertaining. It is not about creating cocktails. That would be my Blue Blazer event …”Where Flair meets Mixology!”

Has your passion toward flair changed over the years? How have you stayed involved?

I really don’t think it has very much. I used to be a competitive flair bartender and would love to still be that, but there just isn’t time in my life. I have a business, a job, a wife, two kids and a dog! Practice time means taking my daughter to the range to hit golf balls (she’s six and she’s REALLY good), not going into the garage and throwing bottles. Now, the passion for flair is focused on helping the sport grow by running events such as Legends, Blue Blazer, Nations International Flair Challenge, Quest World Bartender Championships and Best in the West Bartender Showdown. I also still do a lot of flair training and exhibitions.

So, what is the future of flair given the current economic climate?

I think it is still growing all over the world. This is going to be a tough year for flair because of the economy. A lot of the funding that has been behind these events for the last few years is suffering the same economic issues as the rest of us. While I don’t think there will be as many events this year as the last few years, I do believe that the “sport” of flair bartending will continue to grow. There are just too many flair bartenders all around the world doing flair for it to slow down now.

Eleven years in, what will be the defining detail of this year's competition?

I think there are a lot of details that will stand out, I don’t know if there is one defining detail. We have brought back the tandem/team rounds this year. This is usually the crowd favorite. We have seven two-person teams this year, including three teams from Japan. These rounds are very exciting. Also, at the end of finals night, there is going to be a special five-person performance from Team Japan. That is going to be WILD!!!

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