Bartenders vs. Mixologists: What's the Difference?

Are there substantive differences between bartenders and mixologists? With cocktail culture firmly in the limelight, the word “mixologist” is being bandied about so loosely that distinctions between the two have become obscured. Before the swelling tide renders the matter mute, I 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’s Flatiron Lounge and The Clover Club, it’s a question she’s been asked before. When the term “mixologist” first was applied to bartenders, it was an honorific used to distinguish bartenders who excelled at creating interesting cocktails and had acquired a commanding knowledge of spirits and flavor pairings, Reiner says.

“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 Demerest contends the difference between a mixologist and bartender is roughly the same as that between a chef and waiter. Owner of Neat, a new club in Glendale, Calif., Demerest frequently is 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,” Demerest says. “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 in large part is because of 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,” Meehan says. “During that time, they witnessed the rise of craft beers, single malts, small-batch bourbons, super-premium vodkas, 100% 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 at that — 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 longtime corporate beverage manager for Rock Bottom Restaurants. “I’ve met so-called mixologists who couldn’t bartend their way out of a paper bag,” she says.

“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.”

Director of food and beverage for Starwood Hotels, Mac Gregory 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. He insists that to be successful both are necessary. Likewise, bartenders tend to make drinks expediently, while mixologists likely take greater pains to make the cocktail a masterpiece. Drink quality and presentation shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of prompt, hospitable service.

The consensus opinion among those I consulted for this piece agreed 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 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 Julie 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.”

According to Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail and the curator and designer of The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, the term “mixologist” was first coined in 1856 and used as a show of puffery. “The trend reached the height of ridiculousness in the 1890s when author and principal bartender C.F. Lawlor decided the term ‘mixologist’ wasn’t sufficiently grand or scientific enough and, in turn, proclaimed himself ‘The Mixicologist.’”

One of the foremost authorities on cocktails and all things potable, Haigh has salient advice for fellow bartenders regarding the social conventions surrounding mixology. “Unless you’re being theatrically ironic, never refer to yourself as a ‘mixologist’ lest you be thought of as an egotist of the first rank,” he says. “I recommend reserving its use to compliment a serious and well-considered beverage program and its practitioners.”

Says the good doctor, “It all comes down to the value of humbleness. In the final analysis, how adept are any of us? Probably good as any, better than some!”