Bartending v. Mixology
A spirited debate about what's in a name
My job as a professional chronicler of all things boozy requires me to spend a significant amount of time hanging around talented folks who make cocktails for a living. As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t suck. What is a pain in the hairy hole, however, is the nagging uncertainty over what in the hell we’re supposed to call these people nowadays.
It used to be easy. You see, for most of my adult life they were bartenders, plain and simple. And with the exception of stewardesses, bartenders were the only professionals I knew of who mixed drinks for paying customers. But then a few years back — roundabout the time “stewardesses” became “flight attendants,” come to think of it — some overzealous vocabulist who coulda maybe sorta perhaps or, let’s face it, most definitely was drinks-making legend Dale DeGroff unearthed an antiquated descriptor coined back in 1856. And the “mixologist” was reborn.
Now, it’s entirely likely that up until that time most people were perfectly content with the word bartender, including the bartenders themselves. But once the decidedly more highfalutin “mixologist” reentered the popular lexicon, those same people started throwing the title around like it was bullshit and they were pundits on the Fox News Channel.
“I dug the term mixologist out of obscurity back in 1988 because I wanted to draw attention to the Rainbow Room where we were doing things like they had not been done since ... well since a very long time,” admits DeGroff, a James Beard Award winner. “I wanted the notoriety even though it came with a large measure of scorn from lots of my bartender pals.”
So thanks to that rascally DeGroff, here we are 23 years later still trying to figure out what to call our beloved drink-slingers. Personally, I’m flummoxed by the wordplay, so I decided to put it to the experts.
“Mixologist is a term that I believe refers to a PART of the complete bartender,” says Alex Straus of Hemingway’s Lounge in Hollywood. “A complete bartender knows and uses mixology, along with his knowledge of the weather, politics, sports, maintenance, plumbing, and how to make someone end up outside before they start a fight.”
It’s worth noting that there is little to no debate over how best to describe those who start fights in bars. They’re called “assholes.”
“The main difference between a bartender and a mixologist is plain and simple: Not all bartenders are mixologists, but all mixologists are bartenders,” adds Jonathan Pogash of TheCocktailGuru.com.
“When it comes to professionals who have a passion for this liquid culinary art, who gives a crap what they call themselves?” posits Natalie Bovis of TheLiquidMuse.com. “Tomato, tomahto, whatever. Make a great drink, serve it with a smile, feel proud of your work, end of story.”
Not so fast, Natalie....
“Why do we, alone amongst professions, need two titles to distinguish between the exceptional and the rest?” counters Jon Santer, who’s mixed a few stellar cocktails over the years up in San Francisco. “Meryl Streep is an actor. Megan Fox is an actor.
"Now we all know that Meryl Streep is a far superior actor to Megan Fox. She's often referred to by her peers as the greatest actor. She doesn't call herself an ‘Actologist’ because she takes her craft so seriously. In fact she could, by our logic, call herself a ‘Master Actologist’ as she clearly is that, and if she did we would all know what she meant. But it would be a bit silly.”
Wait a minute, Santer. Streep? A better actor than Megan Fox? Have you even seen Jennifer’s Body? Fox killed it, man!
Then there’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, who brushes off the debate as mere quibbling over semantics. He calls himself a bartender, with the following caveat: “If a bachelorette party bellied up to the bar and one of them shouted out, ‘ARE YOU A MIXOLOGIST?’ I’d lean in with one elbow, look her in the eye, and say, ‘I'll be whatever you want me to be, darling.’”
So there you have it — a spirited debate in which nothing got settled. That’s the drinking life for you. Even the greatest minds in the booze biz can’t come to a consensus on the issue. Of course, we’re open to any and all suggestions on how to settle the matter once and for all. If you’ve got any bright ideas, feel free to drop us a line. Operators… er, customer service specialists are standing by.
Read the more from The Imbiber on Food Republic.
The mega-watt celebrity Dan Dunn’s book Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour is available wherever books are sold. Follow Dan on Twitter and Facebook, and hear him on The Imbiber Show podcast.