Bartender vs. Mixologist

I’m normally not one for conflict but I can’t help but broach the very controversial issue of how “bartenders” and “mixologists” differ. I was curious to learn the industry’s take on the distinctions between the two professions, so I did some research on the topic. As I browsed drink blogs and articles, I realized that there isn’t really a single concrete answer to this heavily debated subject – rather a couple of very strong opinions.

Bartender MixologistSome people stand by the “line cook/chef” analogy. These people believe that the term “bartenders” describe people who have a job making drinks – like line cooks, “bartenders” follow procedure and do the grunt work behind the bar without any original flare. “Mixologists” however, are like executive chefs filled with creative visions. These professionals have dedicated themselves to a career embracing the art form of making cocktails. To be a mixologist requires extensive product knowledge, an understanding of cocktail history and an inspired passion for the art form.

Others seem to loathe such a distinction and argue that it is overly simplistic to assume that bartenders don’t respect their craft and mixologists do. While they admit that it might be true that for every bartender who really cares about his job, there are hundreds who only pour drinks for extra cash while they work towards another career, they take great offense to the claim that all bartenders lack dedication and passion.

One self-proclaimed bartender said that even though he regularly creates new cocktails and studies the art of drink, he feels silly using the term “mixologist.” He even went so far as to liken the semantic distinction of mixologists to that of garbage men who call themselves “sanitation engineers.”

Some see a simple solution, call the people who tend bar “bartenders” and reserve “mixologist” for those who study drinks and create cocktails but don’t stand behind a bar to serve them.

All of these seemingly valid points are enough to make my head spin like I’ve had too many gin and tonics. It’s an interesting debate for sure. In the event that Fancy Cocktailyou’re interested, here’s my take: Over the years, the role of the bartender has evolved. Back in the day, most bar owners tended their own bars and took great pride in their jobs. Working behind the bar allowed them direct control of their liquid assets and a full view of their investment. They obviously had a vested interest in the success of the bar – so whether they were impressing patrons with new cocktails, entertaining or playing bouncer, they put their heart into it. That traditional role is a thing of the past in most bars today. Most often security personnel handle drunks, managers take care of employees and guests and electronic liquor control systems control liquid assets for us, so bartenders are left to mix drinks and talk to people. As the responsibilities of the “bartender” were whittled down, the job required less dedication. Thus, it became less common for bartenders to take their profession to the next level.

In an effort to distinguish between casual drink slingers and dedicated professionals, the term “mixologist” was resurrected. According to this philosophy, it is possible for a bartender to also be a mixologist, however all bartenders are certainly not mixologists. In the same sense, all mixologists are not bartenders – some may work developing cocktail programs, consulting for resorts, casinos and bars or in high tech drink labs rather than behind the bar.

That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it! Hey, at the very least it’s a good topic for chatting up the bartender/mixologist at your favorite drinking establishment.


1 Comment

  • Robert Hess May 2, 2008 @ 11:46am

    I count myself as being a “Mixologist”, but not a “Bartender”, basically because while well known as being a cocktail expert, I have never officially worked behind the bar (except on the small screen :-).

    Folks can often get caught up with the “words” being used, and not the “meaning” those words are trying to relate. Terms such as Mixologist, Bar Chef, Master Bartender, and a variety of others have tried to be utilized with various levels of success.

    At the core however is to simply think about how different bartenders “approach” their chosen careers differently, some with more creativity, enthusiasm, and artistry, than others.

    The authors of “Culinary Artistry” talk about “chefs/cooks” as fitting into a few different categories: “Trade”, “Craft”, and “Art”. Where the “Tradesman” chef is just doing their job, the “Crafstman” chef is proud of their job, and the “Artist” chef is an inspiration to others. Call them what you will, but I think that it is improtant to understand that a similar explanation of the abilities and passion of bartenders can/should be recognized, even if there aren’t specific individual labels which are applied to them. I should also be clear in saying that there is nothing wrong witha “Trade” bartender, in fact I think we need far more of those then we do “Craft” or “Art” bartenders, just as in the same way we need/have far more “Craft” chefs.


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