What Is Mixology in the Contemporary Cocktail Scene?

Are you a mixologist or bartender?

Mixologist Adam Reaume prepares drinks at the Bounty & Barrel

Kimberly White/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images for Jack Daniel's Single Barrel

In the modern cocktail scene, the terms "mixology" and "mixologist" are 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. The question is: What makes a mixologist different than a bartender? The answer is not easy and how the definitions are interpreted is a matter of debate.

What Is Mixology?

At its most basic, mixology is another term for mixing drinks or bartending and a mixologist is another term for a bartender or bar chef. However, mixology is generally accepted as a refined and in-depth study of the art and craft of mixing drinks. Think of it as the study of the chemistry of drinks, and the mixologist as the professional who studies and practices that.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary dates "mixology" to 1872 and defines it as, "the art or skill of preparing mixed drinks". It defines "bartender" as "a person who serves drinks at a bar" and notes that the term was first documented in 1825. Fundamentally, the difference is both clear and ambiguous.

Mixology's definition and its use are the topics of much debate in the professional bartending community. This usually has to do with the impression that the word leaves: that a mixologist is better and more skilled than a bartender. This simply isn't so. Neither one is "better" than the other; each requires both the same and a different set of skills.

Mixologist or Bartender?

Is a mixologist just a fancy, scientific-sounding name for a bartender? Technically, yes, but there is a generally accepted difference between the two job titles and they are often used interchangeably. However, it's widely accepted that mixologists practice mixology and bartenders tend bar, much like the dictionary's definition.

The Mixologist

In the bar industry, it's generally accepted that a mixologist is someone who:

  • Studies and attempts to contribute to the evolution of the field of bartending.
  • Creates innovative cocktails, often using unique, housemade, or historical (and now uncommon) ingredients and combining those to create unusual tastes in drinks.
  • Studies and reimagines classic cocktails
  • Revels in and refines the techniques and drinks of the bartenders of old
  • Is a sort of cocktail historian and revolutionary rolled into one

Mixologists are also known for making a name for themselves in cocktail literature. For instance, Tony Abou-Ganim's nickname is "The Modern Mixologist" and one of his most popular books shares that title. Gary "Gaz" Regan authored "The Joy of Mixology," which is viewed by many in the industry as an essential resource for bartenders.

Many mixologists also take on consulting jobs, working with distilled spirit companies. They help develop cocktails and promote the brand at public events. Additionally, some mixologists work behind a bar regularly and others do not. Still, others have put in years as a bartender before moving onto a career path that one might better define as mixology.

The Bartender

In contrast, 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 have a variety of skills which are very important and some that the mixologist may not develop or use on a regular basis. In general, a bartender needs to:

  • Know a lot of common and popular cocktails
  • Serve many people at once
  • Handle cash and manage bar stock
  • Maintain crowd control
  • Be the ultimate "people person" and think quickly

Career bartenders are often just as talented as so-called mixologists when it comes to crafting cocktails as well. Spending so much time behind the bar gives them insights into consumer tastes and keep up with trends while allowing them to hone their craft. Additionally, many of the most impressive and innovative cocktail recipes are developed by these talented bartenders.

The Debate Continues (or Not)

Of course, both of these definitions are just stereotypes. There are many fine mixing professionals who fall into both categories and many more who specialize in one or the other. The field is simply too vast and has too many career opportunities to lump everyone into one or two convenient definitions.

Each position in the cocktail scene has its own merits, yet the debate continues in the professional bartending community. In fact, many pros behind the stick are against the use of "mixology" altogether and many of those are ones that others would consider mixologists.