Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mixologist Vesus Bartender

What’s the Difference?

In my line of work, I’ve often been asked: What, exactly, is a Mixologist?

I usally explain that it is someone who creates drink recipes, but who doesn’t necessarily tend bar.

However, I've noted a little tension when using the term “Mixologist” around some bartenders. While one group of bartenders it as something to aspire to, others bitterly jeer at anyone who calls themselves a Mixologist, particularly if that person doesn’t serve drinks for a living at a commercial establishment.

During a recent email exchange with my new pal, Rick Dobbs at Martini Groove, I used the term Mixologist and got this response:

Rick: "Did you use the term ‘Mixologist’ on purpose? That term needs to be banned from the lexicon.”

“Really?” I wondered. So, I asked him why. This is what he said:

Rick: “I remember the first time I heard the term. It was in 1987 or so and I was watching Jeopardy and the guy was doing pretty well. They take a break, Alex asks what they do, and he says "Mixologist." Then he says "Well, I'm a bartender, that's just a better name.

“I think ,now, anyone who knows the two terms sees the differentiation and if you call yourself one, you're definitely going to see the differentiation, but it's still seems like it's a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Bartenders were coming up with new and unique drinks a long time before the term, but they still called themselves ‘bartender.’ It comes across to me as a rather elitist term. Maybe it helps out there in the general public, that's not for me to say, but if everyone stopped using it, no one would miss it. The folks I know at places like Absinthe and Bourbon and Branch who are world renowned for coming up with new and interesting drinks still call themselves bartenders, they're just *really good* ones.”

I thought about that for a minute, and this was my reply to him:

TLM: “I use the term ‘Mixologist’ because I'm not a Bartender, but I do create drinks, not because I think a Mixologist is better than a Bartender. I don't have a lot of the speed skills and recipes readily available the way a working bartender may have... I mean, they make drinks all day / night long!

“However, I have enough of an understanding, and yes, I will say a certain expertise, in creating a balanced cocktail. I mess around with new combinations all the time. But, I do it at home. (Alcoholics Anonymous, here I come). I get paid for it from time to time, when someone hires me to do a cocktail presentation or create a themed drink for an event, but bartenders get paid on a regular basis for their drinks.
“I think all bartenders are Mixologists (at least the ones who are passionate about it and create their own recipes from time to time). But not all Mixologists are Bartenders... ya know what I mean?”

I have worked in just about every aspect of restaurants and bars on-and-off since I was 15. Busgirl, cashier, hostess, server, cocktail waitress, cater waiter and event bartender are all on my resume. I have also been an event planner and my last “real job” before becoming a freelance journalist with a passion for spirits was as a restaurant publicist. I respect a skilled bartender. I used to promote them. I interview them regularly. I also don’t feel I’m any less of a Mixologist just because I don’t clock in at a bar four nights a week.

Rick and I decided to open this discussion up to our buddies in the drinking / blogging world. How do you all feel about Mixologist versus Bartender. And, how do you define yourselves?


jimmyp said...

I'm not going to take sides on this one! I work in a bar, and I'm a bartender, but I understand the mixologist argument too. Is mixological engineer too over the top?

Darcy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darcy said...

I consider my self a "bartender" however for some reason media types like to use the term "mixologist". One newspaper article misquoted me and said not to call me a bartender, but a mixologist. What can you do?

Either way I'm not too concerned. Some people see mixologist as an equivalent to a chef. Ever call a genuine chef a "cook"?

natalie@theliquidmuse.com said...

Ha ha ha. I love "mixological engineeer." Hilarious.

jimmyp said...

OK. How about intoxicologist?

Jeffrey Morgenthaler said...

Honestly, I use the "M" word strictly on my website -around town I'm just Jeff the bartender. I think the public and the media want to see the "M" word and being the press whore that I am, I'm going to give it to them on my site.

However, it does bring up an interesting idea. I know a lot of people started using the "M" word to separate themselves from those who throw bottles in the air, light crap on fire, and generally do all they can to sully the term "bartender"

I refer to those type of bartenders as the "F" word. You know what I'm talking about.

camper said...

intoxicologist LOL! Around town I'm just Camper the Drunk.

natalie@theliquidmuse.com said...

I can relate, Camper. Like I told Rick, The Liquid Muse is just a cover up. Around town I'm merely known as The Boozie Floosie. ;-)

I like Intoxicologist. Is a girl one a Femmetoxicologist?

A Grandiose Blog said...

I agree with Natalie, quote: "I think all bartenders are Mixologists but not all Mixologists are Bartenders" in much the same way that all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. I believe there is a difference and Natalie hit the nail on the head.

However, what's also interesting to add is that when I attended bartending school - whenever anyone in the class referred to themselves as a bartender, the instructor would correct us and say to never use that word - the proper term is mixologist. When I asked why he said mixologist is a more professional term and sounds better. Whatever (I didn't say that out loud though) :-)


Cameron said...

I my self am bitterly opposed to term mixologist. Although I do like the angle you pose that mixologist does not necessarily have to tend bar.

The titles I have been given have run the gamete from bartender to mixologist to cocktail consultant. The later I mind the least because it implies you are offering a service.

In most of the US the term mixologist is being thrown around as an elitist tool, to separate the hierarchy of bartenders. The term is meaningless and is backed with out validity. Until there is a program with the prestige of the sommelier courses the title of mixologist seems empty and unjustified. To top it off some are self proclaimed master mixologists, I think this week I'll be a Supreme Liquid Mixolomaniac Bar Chef Extraordinaire.

natalie@theliquidmuse.com said...

Hey Cameron,
Great to see you! Been a while. Did you start a blog, too?

Interesting to hear your thoughts on "mixologist." I wouldn't have thought that you would be so opposed to it (I know you've been referred to as one many times!!! By me, too, I'm sure...)

Anyway, thanks for stopping by TLM - and don't be a stranger!!

Japanesewhisky said...

As someone from the other side of the bar, I`m liking "intoxicologist" a lot. Mixologist sounds like a disease rabbits get or a jumped up guy at a cement mixer. You could be a Mixocist (slightly sinister that one) or just a plain a Mixer, but in the end a painter is a painter whether he is Van Gogh or the chap who comes to do my walls.

Darcy said...

Van Gogh was an artist, not a painter, even though paint was his method of expression. Unlike the guy who paints walls, they just don't care.

Most bartenders don't care what they do, akin to being a painter, but those that do care are left grouped into the same category.

As I've said, I like the term bartender but I'm not adverse to being called a mixologist. I just hate it when other "bartenders" get all uppity about it. Many bartenders need a lesser name, like bar attendant, because the effort they put into the job isn't up to what a true bartender does.

H. said...

I'm in agreement with all of these and have been thinking a lot about this lately as people start calling me these names. I've been a bartender since it paid $2.01/hr. (As a bar owner, I can tell you that it has moved far above that here in SF!) I've been called a Mixologist, a Master Mixologist and this week it I will be in the "Bar Chef Competition" at Tales of the Cocktail. If I lose am I still a "Bar Chef"?

Last week I sat at the bar of Todd Thrasher in Alexandria, Viginia's Restauarnt Eve. Todd works with one of the best chef's in the states (Cathal Armstrong) and has a passion for drinks, food and his operations that is impressive and admirable. His drinks are inventive and truly culinary. If anyone fits the title "Bar Chef" it's Todd - and he calls himself a bartender.

After my stint at Cocktails in the Country I went on a NYC crawl with my friends Eddie Bustos and Neyah White, who were with me at "Gary's Summer Camp". We stopped by the Pegu Club to say hi and I found it interesting that Leo DeGroff's shirt said "Apprentice". I thought that was cool. I had thought of instituing that kind of program at Elixir because the use of the word adds a sense of class and respect for the profession, without being haughty. It is an age old practice to have apprenticeships in trades of skill and craftsmanship. It is also a nodd to history and the fact that it was de riguer in pre-prohibition bars. I worked with some serious veterans in my days and nights behind the stick and learned as much from them as any of the "big business" mentors I worked with after finishing my MBA. So to me, "Apprentice" is a cool way of acknowledging a level of committment and dedication; thereby elevating the name "bartender" and hopefully removing this "Hallmark" name, "mixologist". What's next? Am I going to start getting cards for Mixilogist Day? And by the way, if Leo Degroff is an Apprentice, I'm no longer sure what to call myself.

As to the bit about not being behind the bar, Gary Regan just did a piece on that in his last Ardent Spirits newsletter. If you haven't seen it yet, go check out his thoughts. Gary's about as down-to-earth as they come, and he's a little angry about all of this banter. Gary, I agree. Now go make me a F*&%in' Manhattan!

I don't care what anyone says about me not having regular shifts at my own bar anymore, Gary. I busted my ass for years and can still get back there when it is 5 deep and rock for 6 hours. I've earned my strips, I enjoy doing a variety of things, and I finally have the opportunity to do so. But I still call myself a bartender.

So let them call me what they may. As long as they'll still have a drink with me. Bartneder, another shot of Jamie, please.

natalie@theliquidmuse.com said...

Hey H,
Thanks for your 2 cents. Elixir is a great spot, and surely the result of your many years of honing your craft.

Personally, I think these discussions are good because there is obviously some "grey area" in the way people define certain trades / skills / identities.

I am a big fan of Dale DeGroff, too. And, yes, he was behind the bar before most of us had fake id's. He is a master bartender / mixologist -- whatever someone calls him does not change that he is indeed, the "king of cocktails."

And, Tony Abou-Ganim, whom I've chosen as my personal mentor, calls himself the Modern Mixologist. Would anyone have the balls to diss Tony for calling himself that? He's been a bartender, and more. Tony has the chops, experience and skills to call himself whatever he pleases, if you ask me...

Gary Regan's piece, in his newsletter, I thought he brought up some good points about the feeling of "community" among bartenders. However, he also referred to the "craft of mixology." So, if mixology accepted is a craft, why is the term mixologist not accepted as someone who practices that craft?

Yes, Todd Thrasher kicks butt. Ive interviewed him, featured him in one of my colummns, and been an admirer since I lived in DC. Yes, he is a bartender... but most bartenders can't or don't do what he does.

I think Shakespeare said it best in Romeo and Juliet... you know, that part where Juliet says that by which we call a rose would smell as sweet... Something like that...

Kevin Erskine said...

To Me, "Mixologist" means someone who creates new drinks or alters existing drinks for the better.

That being said, I'm not a big fan of the term, mostly because of the pretentiousness.

But MANY of the "Bartenders" out there are just pouring beer of making vodka red bulls - so they certainly aren't "mixologists".

So I don't agree that "All bartenders are Mixologists".