AUBURN — When you’re one out of 8,000, you have to find a way to dazzle.

Ashleigh Proctor did it by catching ice in a shaker and balancing bottles on her wrist before pouring their tasty contents. Another caught whipped cream in her mouth — and a bit in her nose — after it was flung across the room by a colleague. Some flipped bottles behind their backs and caught them in mid-air.

For the crew at T.G.I Friday’s, it was just another night at the office.

Sort of. The World Bartender Championship tends to bring pizazz to the business of schlepping beer and mixed drinks.

“I never imagined myself as a bartender,” said Proctor, 21. “But now I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s so much fun. It’s amazing.”

Proctor had just finished her routine. Think you have pressure at the office? Try performing your duties before a panel of judges and dozens of screaming bar patrons watching your every move.

“I was terrified at the beginning,” Proctor said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Friday’s was a raucous place Wednesday night as the global bar-tending contest got under way. More than 8,000 bartenders at roughly 900 T.G.I. Friday’s locations began the competition to see which would end up at the finals in Las Vegas.

It’s not just a bunch of booze slingers showing off. The yearly event raises money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Last year, the Auburn restaurant raised $1,200.

“We’ve already got around $800 after the first guy,” Friday’s Manager Aaron Ouellette said. “We’re going to blow last year’s amount out of the water.”

The “first guy” he spoke of was 22-year-old Dustin Lessard, who was the first bartender to perform Wednesday night. Like Proctor, Lessard is a top-ranked bartender; he can flip and shake and pour with the best of them.

Winded and sweaty after his outing behind the bar, Lessard was nonetheless smiling.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting paid to mix liquor and throw bottles around,” he said.

The patrons seemed particularly enthusiastic this year. There were auctions between acrobatic displays from the bartenders. Local businesses donated items like Red Sox memorabilia, hotel reservations, free tattoos, even a day on the range firing automatic weapons.

Then there were the full-on fans of the bar scene. Paul Cole and Cecilia Hunter interrupted a camping trip in Hebron to attend the event. They got seats at the bar close to the action. Like safety-minded barflies, they dressed appropriately: ponchos, shower caps and goggles to protect them from flying liquor.

“It’s all part of the fun,” said Cole, who had not been drenched but was fully expecting to be.

“It’s such a fun place,” Hunter said. “I walk in and they start making my drink before I even sit down. I’m like Norm in ‘Cheers.'”
Worldwide last year, T.G.I Friday’s raised about $250,000 for the Make-A-Wish-Foundation. Ouellette said they fully expected to do as well, if not better, this year.

The bartenders were glad to do their part. After her portion of the competition was over, Proctor continued to serve drinks, albeit without the drama of bottle flips and balancing acts.

“I love the job,” she said. “I want to keep doing it for a long time.”

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C.C. Hunter, left, and Paul Cole, both of Auburn, cheer on the bartenders during the T.G.I. Friday’s World Bartender Championships in Auburn on Wednesday.

Izzy Saldana of Auburn flips a bottle of rum into the air during the T.G.I. Friday’s World Bartender Championships in Auburn on Wednesday.

Kayla Butcher of Turner gets a face full of whipped cream during the T.G.I. Friday’s World Bartender Championships in Auburn on Wednesday.

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