What’s in a name?
In the great debate between mixologists and bartenders, there can be quite a bit!
Some bartenders bristle at the term “mixologist,” while others find that the term has its uses. While one clearly describes a specific job, the other may be the best way to describe someone who studies the art of mixed drinks but doesn’t work behind a bar.
Here’s the difference between the two terms, and why some bartenders don’t like the “m-word.”
The Difference Between a Mixologist and a Bartender
The term “mixologist” was coined all the way back in the 19th century as a way to describe the people at the forefront of cocktail culture. These were the founding fathers of the mixed drink, inventing recipes and writing the original books that many bartenders still reference today.
Taken literally, a mixologist is a student of and expert in the ingredients and tools of the cocktail. Some say that mixology refers to what happens in the glass. So the actual creation of a drink could be called mixology. But there is no customer service aspect to this definition.
This is why most modern bartenders prefer to be called just that—because they tend to the bar, and the people sitting at it. Making drinks is only a small part of what they do. They may also serve food, provide great conversation, make recommendations, share a laugh, clean, prep, and more. So even if coming up with signature cocktails is part of a bartender’s role, “bartender” is generally preferred.
That being said, there are some instances where “mixologist” might be the correct term. For example, a cocktail enthusiast who studies drink history and invents their own cocktails at home could call themselves a mixologist, but not a bartender. The same goes for an employee of a liquor company that creates new recipes using their employer’s product but doesn’t work in a bar or tasting room.
Why Many Bartenders Don’t Like the Term “Mixologist”
To many bartenders, mixologist represents a denigration of their chosen profession. The term was brought back to prominence in the 1980s by famous bartender Dale DeGroff, who later admitted that he brought it back because he “wanted notoriety from the press.” It was a way to elevate the profession and make people take bartenders more seriously.
But many bartenders resent the idea that the profession needed elevation in the first place. To tend a bar is a noble profession, combining expertise in new and classic drinks with the customer experience. It doesn’t need a dressed-up name to be worthy of respect.
How to Become a Mixologist
Since mixology refers more to passion and study than to any specific career, you can become a mixologist simply by becoming a student of the perfect cocktail. You can sign up for mixology courses, or read some of the great cocktail books like DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail or The Joy of Mixology by Gary Reagan. And of course, you can (and should!) practice making drinks for friends at every possible opportunity.
If you want to be a mixologist-by-profession, you’ll have to put in the work at a cocktail bar. By working as a bartender, you’ll be able to hone your skills, learn what people like, and find inspiration for new combinations and recipes. Then, you can choose for yourself whether you’d like to call yourself a mixologist or a bartender.
Or, you can lean into the mixologist title by focusing on the drinks outside of the context of the bar. You could look for work with a liquor company, or provide your services as a consultant to bars or event venues to help them create unique cocktail menus.
How to Become a Bartender
While there are bartending courses galore, the best path to becoming a bartender is to start working in a bar or restaurant. It’s highly unusual to get hired as a bartender with no service experience—even if you have a bartending course certification.
The bartenders are often the most experienced front-of-house employees. They interact with more guests on a given night than anyone else, and they must make beautiful, well-crafted drinks at top speed. That’s why most beginning bartenders get promoted from within their current place of employment where they were either a server or a barback. Servers bring the customer service skills that they’ll need to keep bar guests happy. They just have to be taught the technique behind accurate pours and drink recipes. And barbacks are well-acquainted with the bar’s inventory and logistics, and often do well when they are further trained on service and making drinks.
While they may not know the recipes or how to pour the perfect shot, those skills can be taught. It’s more important that the employer can trust the employee to handle cash and provide great service, night after night.