Bartender vs. Mixologist: Whatas the Difference?

With the cocktail culture back firmly in the limelight, the word mixologist is being bandied about so loosely that distinctions between a bartender and a mixologist are becoming blurred. Before the swelling tide renders the matter moot, we decided to make some calls, wake a bunch of people up and set the record straight. Is it just semantics or are there professional attributes that differentiate mixologists from bartenders?

For cocktail authority Julie Reiner, proprietor of New York City’s Flatiron Lounge and The Clover Club, it’s a question she’s been asked before. When the term mixologist was first applied to bartenders, says Reiner, it was an honorific title used to distinguish bartenders who excelled at creating interesting cocktails and had acquired a commanding knowledge of spirits and flavor pairings. “In short, those who showed up and poured Vodka Tonics were bartenders and those who took a more culinary approach to making drinks were mixologists.”

Aidan Demarest, director of spirits and beverage at The Edison in Los Angeles, contends the difference between a mixologist and bartender is roughly the same as between a chef and waiter. Demarest is frequently described in print as a master mixologist and, while appreciative of the professional recognition, he places equal value on being tagged an accomplished bartender.

“Achieving excellence in either role requires the same degree of commitment,” says Demarest. “A mixologist is an individual with a passion for combining elixirs and creating extraordinary cocktails, whereas a bartender is an individual with a passion for making great drinks and creating well-balanced experiences. To be successful, you really need both types of pros behind the bar.”

Drinks author and beverage consultant Jim Meehan agrees that capably tending bar and devising sensational cocktails are different disciplines, both of which cater to the wants and needs of the guests and require years to fully develop. He thinks the renaissance of the mixologist is due in large part to the ascension of premium spirits over the past two decades.

“The return of the cocktail has been a social phenomenon and bartenders on the job since the early ’90s or so have been at the point,” says Meehan. “During that time they witnessed the rise of craft beers, single malts, small batch bourbons, super-premium vodkas, 100 percent agave tequilas and more. The prevailing circumstances forced bartenders to elevate their game to learn more about the products they were pouring and to develop cocktails that showcased their enhanced quality.”

Experts Weigh In

A consequence of the rise in mixology has been the unintended devaluing of bartender as a job description. By its very nature, being called a mixologist is like tacking a PhD after the person’s name. No doubt it is similar to attaining an advanced degree behind the bar — and a worthy degree it is — but instead of considering mixology as a natural extension of bartending, it’s typically seen as something that elevates the titleholder to a loftier state of consciousness.

Tracy Finklang, for one, bristles at the very notion. She’s an on-premise veteran and the longtime corporate beverage manager for Rock Bottom Restaurants, the Louisville, Colo.-based chain of 33 locations. “I’ve met so-called mixologists who couldn’t bartend their way out of a paper bag.

“Conversely, I’ve worked with many bartenders who took enormous pride in making beautiful, well-crafted drinks fast and efficiently, all the while caring for a bar full of guests, telling tall tales, monitoring the scores and filling drink orders for the wait staff. They’d rather croak than serve an inferior drink. Bartending is a challenging position, and those who do it really well are deserving of professional recognition.”

Mac Gregory, director of food and beverage at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., sees no demarcation between where bartending leaves off and mixology begins. He maintains that one is the logical extension of the other. “You can be a bartender without being a mixologist, but you can’t be a mixologist without being a bartender. What’s most important is the learning and dedication that naturally comes with the process of becoming a mixologist.”

For the guest to have the richest possible experience, Gregory believes the job requires individuals to be both a bartender and an accomplished mixologist, not one or the other. For instance, a bartender may know what ingredients are used in a particular cocktail; a mixologist knows why the cocktail is prepared with those ingredients, and the knowledge of both is necessary. Likewise, bartenders tend to make drinks expediently, while mixologists likely take greater pains to make the cocktail a masterpiece. That said, drink quality and presentation shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of prompt, hospitable service.

The consensus among those consulted for this piece was that mixology’s primary contributions have been adapting the culinary arts to drink making and expanding the concept of what cocktails can be.

According to Rock Bottom’s Finklang, mixologists are artists with all the flash and dazzle of a great bartender and a burning passion for creating inspired flavor combinations. “The mixologists I know think ‘drink’ 24/7. Like the Masters de Cuisine of the bar, they look at anything edible or potable and wonder what amazing concoctions they can make out of them. We should toast them every time we sip a Guava Daiquiri or a Lemongrass and Kaffir Lime Martini.”

Owning and operating two high-profile cocktail lounges in Manhattan keeps Reiner exceedingly busy, but not too busy to proffer the final thought: “With so many self-described mixologists behind the bar these days, I’ll continue to be a very good bartender who cares immensely about the quality of the cocktails that I serve my guests. That’ll be my new title.” NCB


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