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What’s the Difference Between a Mixologist and a Bartender?

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02/12/2020 Unknowingly called Mixologist a Bartender? Read out the difference to get a clear picture of the two.

In the mainstream media, it is quite common these days to see the terms “mixologist” and “bartender” used interchangeably. Part of this has to do with the rise of the craft cocktail movement, which has helped to raise the profile of the men and women creating truly extraordinary cocktails with super-premium spirits at bars and speakeasies in the world’s biggest cities. Yet, as most restaurant and bar insiders will admit publicly, there is still a very clear distinction between a “mixologist” and a “bartender.”

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Let’s explore the differences and similarities between these two titles.

Are all mixologists also bartenders?

According to popular opinion, all mixologists are bartenders, but not all bartenders are mixologists. This makes a fundamental assumption, however: it views mixologists as a form of an elevated bartender, as someone who has moved beyond just creating mixed drinks into someone creating one-of-a-kind masterpieces. From this perspective, the term “mixologist” is more of an honorary title that is bestowed upon a particularly talented bartender who has demonstrated extraordinary skill, talent, and excellence in creating cocktails. Some have even compared the term “mixologist” to a sort of Ph.D. that bartenders acquire for their learning and dedication to the craft of making great cocktails. Mixologists study “mixology,” which is a special study of cocktails that often requires specialized knowledge of the molecular properties of various ingredients being added to a cocktail.

However, there is a dissenting opinion that says all bartenders are mixologists, but not all mixologists are bartenders. From this perspective, “mixologist” is much more of a made-up title used to gain social cachet and celebrity. It also implies a bit of pretentiousness - the sort of person who works at a hipster speakeasy bar and also happens to be tattooed with a waxed moustache (or whatever the iconic image of a hipster happens to be in your city). In contrast, bartenders are very accomplished at creating drinks of all varieties, ranging from classic mixed drinks to elevated craft drinks - not to mention the occasional wine or beer. Mixologists may be very talented at creating one-of-a-kind drinks, but they wouldn’t hold up well to the pressure of serving drinks at a crowded midtown Manhattan bar on a Friday night.

Mixologists serve drinks, but bartenders serve customers

Another way of thinking about the distinction between mixologists and bartenders has to do with the notion of service. According to one popular saying, “mixologists serve drinks, while bartenders serve customers.” And there is certainly an element of truth to that notion. Mixologists can be employed by spirits companies to create special concoctions featuring their spirits, but bartenders are only employed by bars.

And, according to popular lore and Hollywood films, bartenders have always played a very important role in society that extends beyond just serving up drinks. In the classic Hollywood film, for example, the bartender is the person that you open up your heart to, the person you share your secrets with, and the person who is always there with a witty remark or a bit of sage wisdom. If you’re broken-hearted in love, you turn to your favorite bartender. If you are looking for a little companionship, you head to your local bar. (Just think of the phenomenally successful TV sitcom “Cheers,” which was all about hanging out with friends at a bar).

Thus, while mixologists focus almost exclusively on coming up with great cocktail ideas and then crafting truly unique masterpieces, bartenders perform a wide variety of tasks. For example, in addition to creating beautiful, well-crafted drinks, they also are responsible for taking care of a bar full of guests. They must converse with these guests, listen to their stories, and tell their own tall tales. In between filling drink orders, they clean glassware, keep the bar orderly, and help out with the general upkeep and maintenance of the bar. And, at the end of the night, the person who closes out your bar tab is the bartender.

The rise, fall, and rise of the mixologist

Throughout history, the title bartender has been a purely functional one. If you work behind a bar and serve drinks, you are a bartender. There is no academic prerequisite to being a bartender, and you do not need to receive a certification. As long as there have been bars, there have been bartenders.

The story is slightly different with the mixologist, which is a title that has been in favor, and then fallen out of favor before recently coming back into vogue. The term is generally traced back to the 1850s when people started mixing cocktails for the first time. But the term always carried a bit of pretentiousness about it, as well as a bit of egotism. Some saw the new title as a way to add social cachet to the humble barkeep profession – a title that was not backed up by any serious academic credentials or professional certifications. By the 1890s, the term “mixologist” was introduced, and this implied even more than mixing drinks was a sort of pseudoscience. By the time Prohibition hit, however, mixed cocktails went out of favor as people embraced moonshine and other forms of straight alcohol. At a time when spirits were illegal, who would possibly claim to be a mixologist?

And, now, nearly 100 years after the end of Prohibition, we are seeing the return to prominence of the mixologist. And that’s due to a multitude of different factors - the rise of super-premium spirits, the popular embrace of the craft cocktail and the rise of the craft distilling movement to challenge the billion-dollar alcohol beverage conglomerates. At the same time, a number of social trends have supported the rise of the mixologist title - like the growth of social media platforms (especially Instagram), the rise of foodie culture and celebrity chefs, and the appearance of the modern hipster. In many ways, what is old is new again. We’re even seeing the emergence of new bars modeled on the speakeasies of the Prohibition era.

At the end of the day, both bartenders and mixologists are expected to create beautiful, well-craft drinks. They both use super-premium spirits. And they both need to have a solid understanding of how different ingredients will impact the final taste and aroma of a drink. But, with mixologists, there is an added element of art and celebrity - just as there was nearly 150 years ago. The titles bartenders and mixologists may be used interchangeably by many, but it’s clear that several intangible factors - some historical, some social - will always result in some very strong fundamental differences between the two.

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