updated October 22, 2011 at 12:55 PM
The polls are closed. The numbers are in for the After Dark Best Bartender Contest.
Ninety-seven thousand votes. Five thousand Facebook shares. One-hundred-seventy-five area bartenders nominated.
But the most important number is … 20.
That’s the number of bartenders who took part in our contest. They qualified by receiving the most nominations by you the drinker, er, I mean, the reader. They deserve your attention.
After all, that was the point of this contest — to shine a light on the bartending craft and the people who help make going out a good time. Raise a glass and tip them well!
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The end of a two-month-long journey — not to mention a hard-fought campaign.
The winner is . . . Rob Turek of the Barley House in Cleveland. He wins a silver shaker trophy, tickets to “Hair” and a Plain Dealer subscription.
You mean, the guy who blows smoke, juggles bottles and can pour five cocktails at once?
Yup, that’s him: the area’s pre-eminent purveyor of “flair” — a brand of bartending that serves up wild stunts and tricks performed behind and on top of the bar.
“Showmanship is in my heart,” says Turek, a 1989 Oberlin High School grad. “Before I did this, I was a hip-hop dancer. I could dance just like MC Hammer.”
Whoa, he can spew fire like Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, using 151-proof alcohol that he lights while spitting it out of his mouth. That’s not to say that “flair” tricks aren’t hellish at times.
“Once, I tried to make it look like a whale shooting out of a spout,” says Turek. “The flames fell back down, and my face caught on fire — luckily, alcohol doesn’t burn as hot as gasoline.”
He still has some burn marks on his fingers. He also has a scar on his hand from an exploding bottle. Then there’s the chipped tooth.
“I got that while juggling a bottle and it hit me in the mouth,” says Turek, who’s competed in several national “flair” competitions. “Luckily, it doesn’t happen often.”
Turek recently appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” — to perform a very different trick.
“I mixed and talked about wellness cocktails,” he says. “Along with the rise in culinary arts, there’s more interest in fresh cocktails, which can actually be healthy to drink.”
Barley House is less the cocktail aficionado than a high-volume party palace.
“We’re lucky to have places like Velvet Tango Room here,” says Turek. “They’ve helped elevate bartending to a craft.”