The terms “mixology” and “mixologist” have become a regular part of bar vocabulary. They are being used more and more to describe a style of mixing cocktails and the people who practice it. However, exactly what is mixology?
Well, that’s a good question. Mixology is a term for mixing drinks or bar-tending, and a mixologist is a term for a bartender or bar chef. Think of it as the study of the chemistry of drinks, and the mixologist as the professional who studies that. It can sometimes seem like the profession of drink-slinging has divided itself into two camps: Through one door, you’ll find old school bartenders slinging $5 house drinks for Happy Hour, and through another door, you’ll discover uniformed men and carefully coiffed women preparing a $12 concoction for your sipping pleasure.
Mixology might seem like a newer term, but it’s actually pretty old — like mid-19th century old — and was only revived as a way to describe the recent new stream of bartenders caring (a lot) about their craft. Mixology’s definition and its use are the topics of much debate in the bartending community, usually because of the impression it leaves — that a mixologist is better and more skilled than a bartender. This isn’t necessarily so. Neither one is “better” than the other; each requires both the same and a different set of skills. Within our restaurant group, we have both and all bring a unique touch to each of our bars.
So, mixologist or bartender? We tend to think of a mixologist as someone who:
- Studies and help evolve the field of bar-tending.
- Creates innovative cocktails using unique, house-made, or historical ingredients.
- Studies and re-imagines classic cocktails and their presentation.
- Is a sort of cocktail historian and revolutionary rolled into one.
The title “bartender” conjures up images of men and women who can whip out 20 mixed drinks and 50 draws of beer before anyone knows what happened. They are a talented, multi-tasking group that can do all that while keeping a crowded bar happy, lively, and tipping. A bartender:
- Needs to know a lot of common and popular cocktails.
- Serve many people at once.
- Maintain crowd control.
- Be the ultimate “people person” and think quickly.
Of course, both of these definitions are just stereotypes. There are many exceptional mixing professionals who fall into both categories, and many more who specialize in one or the other. So the real impact of “mixology” wasn’t just to influence the way we drink in bars, or how much we pay for cocktails, but to create a standard that hadn’t existed for a very long time in spirits and cocktail drinking culture.
Even if you don’t want something complex, at the end of the day, the comeback of “mixology” might just mean your neighborhood bar has a slightly better selection of gins for your gin and tonic, which is being served by a “psychologist” (bartender) or “scientist” (mixologist). Of course, whatever you call the guy or gal behind the bar, just remember to tip well.