You need to hire one, but you don’t really know what exactly you should be asking for. Don’t panic, here’s the rundown on the origin and connotations of both the bartender and the mixologist. Apparently there really is quite the distinction.
What really is the distinction?
We’re all guilty of thinking that claiming to be a ‘mixologist’ is something of an overstatement. Come on. If we’re really honest with ourselves, when hearing the term we immediately deem it as a bit of a glorified word for ‘bartender’. That would be like deciding you don’t really like the term ‘window cleaner’ anymore and instead, changing your LinkedIn profession to ‘glazing enhancer’, right? Well, despite the fact that we may see them as essentially the same thing, socially spe`aking, one does seem to carry more weight than the other. Why is mixology considered ‘glorified’ bartending, anyway? And what the heck makes mixology all that different from a bartending full stop?
The term ‘mixologist’ was supposedly born out of the desire to merit bartenders who showed particular skill in creative cocktail making. For those that took a more imaginative, culinary approach to drink creation. There was no indication that it meant a promotion, just a knack for one particular part of bartending; the first known mention of it was found in NYC’s literary mag, The Knickerbocker, in 1856. But even then it was only used as a poncier synonym for ‘barkeep’.
Over time, mixologists began to become regarded as the bartenders with bells and whistles on. Why? Because we assume they are more skilled. Why is that? Because mixology looks just like bartending but with addons. Sparklers, shakers and complex looking equipment. We don’t ever actually consider how transferable the skills learnt from mixology are to efficiently tending a bar. We assume that mixologists are bartenders plus something else, but that is very often not the case. They are essentially different roles entirely. One isn’t the better version of the other. They are equally weighted, and it would take just as much commitment to excel at either role. In actual fact, a good bar needs both. So what actually is the difference?
With regards to drinks, bartenders generally know more of the ‘what’, and mixologists more of the ‘how’. By that we mean, a bartender could wax lyrical about the origins of this fantastic 12 year AnCnoc Whisky and its journey from its Highland distillery, but a Mixologist can show you exactly what to add and what to serve alongside for a truly unique encounter with it. A bartender is your dictionary: defining, and explaining the drink. A Mixologist is your thesaurus: demonstrating all the variations and forms it can take.
Mixologists have showmanship - or ‘flair’ as it’s known - and will prioritise the craft of precisely putting a drink together as well as the entertainment in its delivery. Bartenders are practical, and know that if a party has ordered 6 cocktails, spending 10 minutes on each will mean that it’ll take an hour for the whole flock to have a drink in their hand. Bartenders instead prioritise service and hospitality, tending to all things bar like the ambience and overall customer experience. In essence: a bartender serves people, a mixologist serves drinks.
There is of course some overlap, in that both concern serving drinks, which is what leads to the confusion in terms. It’s fair to assume that the animosity between the mixologist and the bartender comes from the fact that people are always confusing the two. You could compare it to, say, advertising and marketing. Advertising is a subset of the marketing umbrella, as it of course covers a wealth of other things. Mixology is a honed, knowledge of a very specific subset of bartending. The two roles require surprisingly different abilities.
Until recent years, cocktails were more of a concern for specialised cocktail venues anyway, so the demand for mixology experts just wasn’t there. Nowadays you’ll find that even events and music festivals have specialist mixology tents in the arena. Since the 1990’s, there has also been quite a notable surge in the sales of premium spirits, giving mixologists far more to play with, so it seems we are now in the middle of somewhat of a ‘Cocktail Renaissance’. With the demand for more exciting and unusual cocktail creations continuing, competition for custom is rife, venues are having to really push the boat out to nab customers and mixology is everywhere. This could have a little something to do with the social depreciation of the role of ‘bartender’. It somehow seems a little duller by comparison.
Often in the bar and nightclub industry, though, being called a ‘mixologist’ is actually somewhat of an insult. It is in fact a bit of a joke term for the novelty barman or woman. But just to be on the safe side, it’s probably better to ask what an individual would prefer to be described as.
At the end of the day, it’s all really just industry semantics, so let’s just be thankful that when they were coining names for this new wave of drink making, they went for ‘mixologist’. Cocktologist doesn’t really roll off the tongue now, does it?