Most customers probably do not know the difference between a bartender and a mixologist. Who can tell, anyway? Both craft drinks to serve to customers, after all.
In some cases, people only have one name for the person on the other side of the bar: a bartender. The word “mixologist” simply incites assumptions that it is just a fancy nickname for the bartender.
Either way, customers get carefully crafted drinks and enjoy the night, so why bother knowing the difference?
While some may shrug it off, you may want some clarification into the matter, especially if you’re aspiring to start a career as one or the other .
Before learning the art and science of mixology or attending a bartending class, it pays to know and understand the three key differences between a bartender and a mixologist.
1. The Job Descriptions
The words “mixology” and “mixologist” have become quite common in cocktail vocabulary in the modern bar scene. These words describe the art of mixing cocktails and the individuals who practice the craft, respectively.
However, the sudden popularity of these terms has also become a source of confusion. What makes a mixologist different from a bartender, anyway?
The answer partly lies in each of these professionals’ job descriptions.
The term “bartender” often refers to men and women who are experts in whipping out cocktails and drinks while entertaining customers. Besides carrying an ICCA bartending certificate, they also have a knack for doing everything on the other side of the bar while keeping customers lively, happy, and tipping.
With this many responsibilities, bartenders have a few skills that mixologists may not be able to use and develop in their line of work. Generally, the primary duties of a bartender are:
- Knowing all about cocktails, both common and popular
- Catering to several customers at once
- Managing bar stock and handling cash transactions
- Keeping the crowd controlled
- Thinking fast and becoming everybody’s best friend
Many career bartenders are as talented in mixing up cocktails as mixologists, with most of their creations more suitable for consumer tastes and trends. This is because bartenders tend to be focused on the customers more than the mixologists are.
Often, people think of the term “mixologist” as just another name for a bartender – albeit fancier and more scientific-sounding. Technically, this is true.
However, the two job titles still have a significant difference despite being used interchangeably. In the bar industry, a mixologist is a person who:
- Learns about and tries to contribute to the development of the bartending field
- Crafts innovative cocktails using house-made, unique, historical, or uncommon ingredients and comes up with unusual flavors in beverages using them
- Reimagines and studies classic cocktail drinks
- Refines different techniques and drinks crafted by the bartenders of old
- Serves as a cocktail historian and mixology revolutionary at the same time
Apart from all these, mixologists are also popular for making their names known in the literature about cocktails, such as:
- The Modern Mixologist – a book authored and named after Tony Abou-Ganim
- The Joy of Mixology – an essential resource for bartenders and bartenders-in-training by Gary “Gaz” Regan
Besides serving as the cocktail industry educators, mixologists also take consulting jobs and work in alcohol distilling companies. In addition, they are called in to promote brands and develop signature cocktails at public events.
And, of course, they work behind a bar – some more regularly than others. Many of them have spent years bartending before moving on to a career path that is now known as “mixology.”
2. The Job Title
If you noticed in the previous section, the job titles of bartenders and mixologists are often misunderstood, primarily because one title sounds more elite than the other. In fact, one consequence that came with the rise of mixology is the unintended devaluation of those holding the title of a “bartender.”
Considering the description attached to the job, being called a mixologist is much like attaching “Ph.D.” to a person’s name. There is no doubt that the people called such did have more advanced training and certification. But instead of considering it as an extension of bartending, mixology often comes off as a title that gives its holder a “higher” state of consciousness.
3. The Intention
With the bartender vs. mixology debate continuously asking who’s who in the bar industry, some professionals who are actually doing the job offer their insight on the issue at hand. For someone who can be considered both, the primary difference between the two is the intention.
Zachary Russell, a bar manager in Houston, Texas, explained that a mixologist’s intention is to have every drink he delivers to be “a measure of his merit as a bartender.”
Having said that, Russell, who has been working in a bar in Houston for years, prefers to be acknowledged as a bartender because he believes that the title of a mixologist carries an air of self-righteousness and pretentiousness.
“At the end of the day, whether whipping up a Ramos or refilling a glass of water, I’m a man tending a bar,” he said.
For a customer to have the best possible experience at a bar, these professionals need to be accomplished both as a bartender and mixologist – not just one or the other. Think of it like this:
While a bartender knows the ingredients, mixologists understand why those are chosen to prepare a specific cocktail. Alternatively, bartenders are talented in serving drinks promptly, while mixologists take greater pains to create a masterpiece, which sometimes can compromise hospitable service.
The debate on who’s called what in the cocktail scene continues, especially since several bar professionals fall into both categories. Many of them specialize in one or the other, but the truth is that the work that goes on behind the bar is simply too vast to lump each and every skilled professional into a handful of job titles and definitions.
The conclusion? Whether bartender or mixologist, if you’re someone talented enough to maintain crowds of people enjoying the night while serving excellent cocktails, then you’re definitely on the right career path.
Shanaaz Raja is the Course Director at International Centre for Culinary Arts – ICCA Dubai.