What to do tonight: Bartenders will be shaking things up at the Regional T.G.I. Friday's Bartending Championship

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Good bartending is more than just filling the shot glass and listening to customers complain about the Steelers' quarterback situation.

Which brings us to the Regional T.G.I. Friday's Bartending Championship at 7 tonight at the chain's Waterfront location in Homestead.

Three bartenders -- each of whom has advanced by winning local competitions -- will display their mixology and "flair" skills in hopes of impressing a panel of judges and moving on to the district championships in the Washington, D.C. area.

Good bartending, as you know, is two parts drink and one part show.

"It's more than flipping bottles over their shoulders," said Amie Dancu, director of marketing for The Bistro Group, which owns and operates the 29 T.G.I. Friday's in the region. "They're not just juggling. They're literally creating the concoctions for the guest as they're flipping bottles. It's a feat within itself.

"Tonight's event centers around a routine the bartenders have created ahead of time. Of course, it's in line with criteria, but we do want to see variety. They've got to be able to work the crowd while simultaneously making four to five different drinks to the specifics of the recipe.

"But then we throw in a last-minute drink that none of the bartenders know to keep it on a fair playing level."

The contestants are three bartenders who survived preliminary rounds from other Friday's in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and the Pittsburgh area.

Ryan Durbin from Lexington, Ky., and Scott Christian from Beaver Creek, Ohio, near Dayton, will be taking on local star Darcy Brand, 23, of Bridgeville, who has been a bartender at the T.G.I. Friday's in Washington, Pa., for two years.

"I'm pretty dedicated to anything I do," said Ms. Brand, who will become a high school math teacher in the spring. "I taught myself how to flair. And I have friends who participated in previous competitions who showed me a couple things. And I saw some flair on YouTube."

Obviously, Ms. Brand will have a pretty good turnout of family and friends. But the audience doesn't choose the winners. The designated judges -- who we hope have designated drivers -- are Ms. Dancu and two other company executives.

"I've been extremely nervous all day," Ms. Brand said. "It's a lot of pressure to get up in front of a large group of people and flair. There's always the chance that you're going to not catch a bottle. But that's what flair bartending is. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. You just got to go out there and have fun and try not to drop anything."

Ms. Brand said she will be going with a presentation that has worked well for her so far.

"At the end of my routine, I make a 10-martini glass pyramid and do a five-martini pour, which is five different martinis out of five different shakers and they all come out separately," she said. "It's really cool to watch. I'm just hoping I can pull that stunt off because it's my big finale."

Ms. Dancu said T.G.I. Friday's has been participating in the Bartending Championship for more than 25 years. It's an important part of the chain's personality.

"What we do, instead of just serving a drink to a guest, we call it 'flair-tending,' taking bartending to another level where we're engaging with the guest in a fun way," she said. "And flipping bottles is a huge part of that. It's a great opportunity to recognize and reward our bartending staff while celebrating with guests and raising money for charity."

Tonight's event benefits Steps to Independence. But how do they raise money when admission is free?

"Each of the bartenders will have friends and family who are traveling with them. They and other guests will be bidding for drinks," Ms. Dancu said. "It can get pretty aggressive. Sometimes they'll say, 'I'll bid $50 for the Long Island Iced Tea.' 'Fine, I'll take the Junebug for 40.' It's a fun atmosphere, a quality concoction, and some fundraising."

The event is getting bigger every year. The past two winners of the International Bartending Championship, determined in the spring, have been from Sweden and Hungary.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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