Bartender vs. Mixologist

One thing that (I think) is lost on people who debate the “bartender vs. mixologist”  topic is this: that the people who all debate this topic are in the industry. For those reading this who aren’t in the industry, “the industry” includes anybody who works at a bar and related sectors, including restaurants, distilleries, distributors, etc., but it mainly refers to people who work in bars. Here’s the bottom line: all of the patrons of these establishments don’t care what you call yourself as long as you provide them with great service, an interesting setting, and delicious food and drink at a fair price. Bottom line: refer to yourself how you prefer.

Quick analogy. I’m not in the industry. I work as a social media marketer. I never refer to myself as a social media “guru” because all of the people who called themselves that are posers just trying to make a quick buck. Do I still get referred to as a social media guru? Yes. Do I like it? No. Do I really have much choice in what I get called because the general population latched onto a term I don’t like? No.

The thing with the bartender vs. mixologist debate is that it can’t be won. They are two different words with two different meanings and they apply in different situations. And mixologist won’t die anytime soon since it is the buzzword for those outside of the industry. People generally don’t notice good service, they notice bad, but they aren’t so great at spotting good service. They are, however, keenly aware of the different and they notice that the cocktails “mixologists” make are different than what they have been exposed to by bartenders for the previous four decades. The general populace sees the distinction between what a mixologist provides and what a bartender provides, at least with drinks. Bartenders just see it as providing the same experience no matter what the customer orders.

People, and I’m not really talking about hipsters, like to be served by mixologists. It makes them feel special because in their eyes they are getting something that they’ve never had before with the bartenders of their youth. I occasionally bartend for auctions or special events, but when I’m there talking to people, I call myself a mixologist because it makes them feel special. They can get a bartender from the catering place to mash some limes in their gin and tonic, but a mixologist is presenting them with something different.

For a visual of how regular people view the differences between bartenders and mixologists, conduct this search and then this search.

This is where different becomes pretentious and why so many bartenders dislike the term mixologist. Making drinks the way a “mixologist” makes them is harder. Let’s not argue about the time and the place to make hard drinks (or if you want, the comments are the place for that.) The fact is the complex drinks are harder to make and take more time, and that is what makes them great. I hope to God you’ve seen A League of Their Own, so I shouldn’t have to post this quote, but it is apt.

“If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.” –Jimmy Dugan

Though, I’m not sure which line from the move is better commentary on this topic. That or, “Avoid the clap, Jimmy Dugan.”

I don’t go to bars very often, but I’ve never encountered the pretentiousness that everybody associates with mixologists. Maybe it is a Northwest thing (which is where nearly all of my bar going experience has taken place), and I’ve literally had one bad experience at Rob Roy, but I just haven’t seen the pretentiousness. I’m sure it is out there, but my gut says that it is a small percentage of people working in the industry who are pretentious. Everybody I’ve met and talked with and ordered drinks from has always been great.

To me, a mixologist is somebody who is actively trying to push the art of making drinks. I make drinks all of the time from books, but it is mechanical. Once you get past the initial technique, it is just a process. When you start playing with flavors and ingredients, that is when you play the role of a mixologist. You are, or at least are attempting to, break new ground, to try something new. It might taste like crap the first time you make it, but at least you are trying something.

The term bartender refers to somebody who tends a bar. Depending on the situation, a bartender might have to play mixologist when he is developing the new spring menu, but most nights he tends his bar, makes delicious drinks, and makes sure that his patrons are having a good time at his establishment. He truly is tending his bar. This is why there is room for both terms. They have different meanings.

My general feeling about this topic is summed up nicely in a quote from Major League.

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