Chow Bella

Bartender vs. Mixologist: What's In a Name?

There was a day when a bartender was a bartender. Period. The end. But in recent years, more and more bartenders have begun calling themselves mixologists, a term with a distinctly academic ring to it.

You don't have to be a semanticist to imagine how that sits with some people, particularly old-school barkeeps who were slinging booze before these whippersnappers were even born. To old-timers (and to customers, as well), calling a bartender a mixologist sounds as pretentious as calling a janitor a sanitation engineer.

I get it, but I beg to differ.

Though there's plenty of overlap between bartenders and mixologists when it comes to duties and skills, they're actually two different animals with two completely different perspectives.

As the saying goes, a bartender serves people and a mixologist serves drinks. And though that's not exactly fair to the mixologist who may have great people skills, it does help to make the distinction between the two a bit clearer.

A good old-fashioned bartender values the overall customer experience foremost. He/she makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome, calls regulars by name, and knows what they drink. Sure, it's a stereotype, but bartenders usually are the people-people -- the folks who can keep the atmosphere convivial, rattle off sports scores, tell a great joke, and listen as attentively as a priest at confession. They relish the social interaction.

Mixologists, on the other hand, are often more like chefs: nerdy and obsessed. They spend their days (and nights) thinking drink, imagining how this ingredient might blend with that one and dreaming of flavor combos in their pointy little heads. They don't just make a perfect Old Fashioned; they consider the flavor principles at work and concoct a new-fashioned one -- with bacon. They're masters of the tweak and twist, turning the familiar into a delicious surprise.

Like great chefs everywhere, mixologists are always eager to learn new techniques and to keep up with their peers in the industry. At the same time, they honor the past by reading vintage cocktail guides and learning the rich history of their trade. They knew who invented a classic cocktail and when -- and if there's a good story behind it, they know that, too.

Like their culinary counterparts, they source fresh, local, organic herbs, and vegetables and take pride in making many of their own products -- say, tinctures or soda water -- in-house. And, of course, just as chefs use high-end meats and cheeses provided by small producers, so do mixologists use premium spirits such as small-batch bourbons, single malts and 100 percent agave tequilas.

Some people argue that with mixologists, drink quality is achieved at the expense of speed. Do we really want to wait seven minutes for an elaborate concoction with six ingredients?

Well, yes, actually, some of us do -- because while whipping something up at warp speed has its merit (I bartended at two wildly popular discos back in the Bronze Age, when it was not uncommon to see people three-deep at the bar), a well-crafted cocktail is worth the wait. It's the difference between grabbing a burger and going out for a fancy dinner.

It's been said that every mixologist is a bartender but not every bartender is a mixologist, and I think there's some truth to that. But, frankly, I don't want an alcoholic beverage world without good old bartenders in it. Both have their place. Shall we drink to that?

Coming soon: Chow Bella will share our list of favorite local bartenders and mixologists.

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Nikki Buchanan