The Contemporary Cocktail Scene: What Is Mixology?

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

The terms "mixology" and "mixologist" have become 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.

However, exactly what is mixology? Well, that's a good question.

What Is Mixology?

Mixology is another term for mixing drinks or bartending and a mixologist is another term for a bartender or bar chef.

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 that.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary dates mixology to 1948 and defines it as, "the art or skill of preparing mixed drinks".

Mixology's definition and its use are the topics of much debate in the bartending community, usually because of the impression it leaves: that a mixologist is better and more skilled than a bartender. This isn't necessarily so. Neither one is "better" than the other; each requires both the same and a different set of skills. The two titles can be interchanged.

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 the two can be used interchangeably. Still confused?

Mixologists practice mixology and bartenders tend bar.

The Mixologist

In the industry, we tend to think of a mixologist as someone who:

  • Studies and help evolve 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 and industry-wide consulting jobs. Some work behind a bar regularly and others do not.

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

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.

Each has its own merits and 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.