In the modern cocktail scene, the terms "mixology" and "mixologist" are a regular part of bar vocabulary. They often describe a particular style of mixing cocktails and the professionals who practice it. The question is: What makes a mixologist different than a bartender? The answer is not easy because the two job titles are so intertwined, and the skillsets required in both careers often overlap.
What Is Mixology?
At its most basic, mixology is another term for mixing drinks or bartending, and a mixologist is another title for a bartender or bar chef. However, mixology is generally accepted as an in-depth approach to the art and craft of mixing drinks. Think of it as studying the chemistry of drinks, and the mixologist as the professional who practices that.
In "The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails," contributor Derek Brown mentions that the word mixologist was first printed in an 1856 edition of Knickerbocker Magazine and regularly used by the 1870s. 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 was first documented in 1825. Fundamentally, the difference is both clear and ambiguous.
Mixology's definition and its use are debated in the professional bartending community. It usually has to do with the impression that a mixologist is 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, and the two titles are often used interchangeably.
Some mixologists regularly work behind a bar, and others do not. Still, others put in years as a bartender before moving onto a career path that one might better define as mixology. 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
- Researches and reimagines classic cocktails while reviving or refining the techniques used by previous generations of bartenders
- 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. The late Gary "Gaz" Regan authored "The Joy of Mixology," which many in the industry view as an essential resource for bartenders.
Many mixologists also take on consulting jobs. Often working with distilled spirit companies, they help develop cocktails and promote the brand at public events.
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 essential skills, some of which a mixologist may not develop or use on a regular basis. Beyond preparing drinks, a bartender needs to:
- Memorize the most 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
While hospitality is a large part of the job, career bartenders are just as talented as mixologists when crafting cocktails. Spending so much time behind the bar gives them insight into consumer tastes and the latest trends while allowing them to hone their craft. These talented bartenders developed many of the most impressive and innovative cocktail recipes.
The Debate Continues (or Not)
Of course, both of these definitions are just stereotypes. Many fine mixing professionals fall into both categories, and many more 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, even if they're someone that others would consider a mixologist.
Wondrich D, Rothbaum N, eds. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. 1st ed. Oxford University Press; 2022.