When craft alcohol took off, “cocktail culture” came roaring back. Bars and lounges competed for recognition by reviving classic cocktails or devising new ones. Suddenly, it seemed like anyone who served alcohol could declare themselves a “mixologist.”
What’s the difference between bartenders and mixologists, anyway? First, both bartenders and mixologists care about how drinks look, taste, and even smell. The divergence between them has to do with transforming a set of distinct ingredients into a perfectly balanced mixture in a glass.
Creating vs. Preparing
A mixologist devises and refines cocktail recipes until they’ve made something new and special. The mixologist is the creator of a recipe and of the technique for preparing it. They have also studied the history of cocktails.
A bartender, on the other hand, takes the recipe and technique that the mixologist created and reproduces it flawlessly with every order. A good bartender must have a versatile skill set. They must not only make drinks perfectly but also make them quickly while carrying on conversations, filling orders for servers, and keeping the bar area clean.
Backstage vs. Onstage
A mixologist will occasionally help out behind the bar, but their key role is to create, test, and perfect new cocktail combinations. They do most of that work behind the scenes, not unlike a chef de cuisine.
A bartender is up front, onstage, interacting with bar patrons. The bartender’s role can be thought of as a combination of the roles of server and senior chef: they’re responsible for one area of the kitchen (in this case, the bar). Bartenders are usually responsible for supervising the bar area, completing or supervising prep work, and preparing and serving drinks to customers. The one thing they don’t typically do (unless they’re also mixologists) is create new cocktails.
Let’s Save the Pretension and Just Get Along
In the cocktail world, a bit of a tiff has developed between bartenders and mixologists. Naming oneself a “mixologist” can feel boastful. Let’s face it; anyone who loves cocktail history and obscure ingredients can at times, throw around their encyclopedic knowledge more than appreciated. But ultimately, mixologists can’t succeed without bartenders, and bartenders benefit from mixologists’ creations.
It’s possible to learn from mixology experts anywhere through virtual mixology events. If you want to raise your cocktail game or go head-to-head with your buddy who won’t stop talking about the Sazerac and all the various types of bitters, consider taking a mixology class in person or online. It’s there you’ll truly differentiate yourself as a bartender who knows mixology or as a mixologist who’s willing to learn some higher-level service skills from skilled bartenders. Either way, you’ll come away with some new drink recipes to try with your friends.