Billy Agan is in my kitchen, drinking a margarita and fiddling with a butterfly knife. He's here to talk about lighting bars on fire.
Well, more specifically, he's here to tell me how to light a bar on fire without lighting the bar on fire. I wanted to talk to Billy because he's a good storyteller and, more importantly, because I've seen him light the bar on fire at least a baker's dozen times without ever needing to dust off the fire extinguisher. He's been tending bar as long as most people spend getting their bachelor's degrees, and he was happy to share some of this education.
I remember very clearly the first time I watched someone set fire to a bar, because it was the first time I realized how much of bar tending has nothing to do with drink making. Properly lighting the bar on fire is the logical extension of any good bartender's bag of tricks—a combination of showmanship, professionalism and a little bit of danger. Oh, and all done inches away from a lot of drunk people.
Below I've excerpted a few tips, tricks and some basic common sense from my interview with Agan—but first, a note to the low IQ and litigious: I am no pyrotechnics expert and this should not be construed as such advice; basically, you are an adult and if you don't know what you're doing, leave it to someone who does.
Timing is Important:
You're putting on a show. Lighting a bar on fire, like a strip tease, a Marx Brothers skit or the guitar solo in November Rain, is all about timing, about knowing when to flip the switch. Here's an extended metaphor: If bartending is like trying to infiltrate the underground street-racing scene in early 00s Los Angeles, and the time-the-bar-is-on-fire is NOS, then you need to hit it at exactly the right moment, otherwise you will be Paul Walker, and you'll owe Vin Diesel a ten-second car. Read the room, don't be a buster.
Do Your Prep:
This is a gimme. You're going to be lighting a large surface on fire in a dark, loud, enclosed space, sardined between an unpredictable crowd and glass containers full of flammable liquids. Clear off the straws caddies, napkin holders, empty glasses and anybody with their head on the bar—in other words, anything that wouldn't respond well to being on fire for 30 seconds.
Lighting The Bar:
When I asked Billy if he'd ever seen something go wrong when a bar was lit on fire, he said—without hesitation—"almost every time."
What rates as "something going wrong" is, to a degree, a matter of perspective. While he's never seen an absolute catastrophe behind the bar, he's seen plenty of avoidable mistakes that could have been worse.
Fire, as most of you know, is the rapid oxidation of a material through the commingling of heat and oxygen. For our purposes, what you're looking for then, is a material capable of quickly translating this heat into bright flames without passing too much heat onto the actual bar.
And for this, Billy recommends Ronsonol lighter fluid. For the flame, go with a lighter over a match. Matches can leave an unpleasant, sulfury smell, but more importantly, "in a crowded bar, you don't want to risk throwing a still lit match into the garbage and starting a fire…an actual fire."
While the lighter fluid is his go-to, he suggests trying out different chemicals to create different flames: "We tried isopropyl alcohol because it creates a blue flame [but] It also depends on your counter top. If we had a copper bar top, it would burn green…but we'd have to get it really hot."
During and After:
You have everyone's attention, don't waste it.
Obviously, the bar, clientele and your personal taste will largely dictate how you do this, but Billy advocated some personal favorites such as "long-pouring" the lighter fluid from above your head and re-lighting the bar with existing flame. If you're going to do this, you should consider one minute as the outside cap for time the bar ought to be on fire.
As far as cleaning up, this part should take care of itself if you followed the rules…The lighter fluid will burn off during the show and by the time the flames flicker out, you should be left with a clean bar, a light smokiness overheard, and a crowd who, having just partaken in a ritual recalling mankind's earliest and most heathen displays, will be clamoring so like so many depraved and lost souls to fuel their continued bacchanalian descent into madness and pleasure.
(Photos by Brian Hobson)