Bartender vs. Mixologist

by: Jojo Valenzuela

Nowadays amusement and amazement go hand in hand when it comes to experiential treats for the palate. And with the different concoctions of liquor and spirits from bars, there’s a certain love affair with cocktails and mixed drinks one can down on a frivolous night. There are the less conspicuous hole-in-the-wall establishments and there are those that make a name as their bartenders have sort of following of patrons; so wherever he goes they go. Nonetheless, the bespoke creations that are slowly making a mark in the industry might well be a craft that one can truly master. So let us take Jojo’s insights on what defines a bartender & a mixologist. He also gives us his two cents on what it takes to earn that title.


Bartender vs. Mixologist

Bartender and mixologist, is a title that is interchangeable.  No it is not!  Bartenders tend bar, and mixologists create drinks.  The first time I heard somebody introduce himself to me as a mixologist of a super upscale DC restaurant in 2007, I was stumped!  I was a bar manager back then and thought to myself, “mixologist is such a pretentious title!”  It did open my mind though, that there are bartenders out there that did things beyond what I was already doing, something advanced!

The bar is like a stage, bartenders are always in the limelight.  As soon as a customer (we call them guests) walks into your establishment, someone is watching.  That is the reason people with strong personalities and character, or really good looks, get hired as bartenders. You want somebody back there that a guest would have the pleasure of watching work.

Ok, so you walk into a pub, restaurant, club or whatever it may be, and there’s a person behind the bar, it is safe to assume that he or she is the bartender, right?  Right!  If that person is not the bartender, he or she may be the bar back (bar assistant) or the manager.  If neither of those are your title, you have no business to be behind the bar.  Bartenders make and pour drinks, and serve food from behind the bar to guests.  However, “great bartenders” can make drinks, while chatting with guests, maintaining the cleanliness of the bar, acknowledging the needs of other guests, accommodating difficult guests, identifying if somebody is drinking too fast, do cash and credit card transactions, and checking people’s I.D.s all in one motion.  Bartending is a skill, there’s a lot of multi tasking involved in the job.

Mixologists are people who are skilled at mixing cocktails and other drinks.  Anybody can be a mixologist, in fact, I know lawyers and politicians that call themselves mixologists.  When random people make their own concoctions, they call themselves whatever they want, sure, mixologist is one of them.  Mixology seems to be a higher study of making drinks.  Mixologists make their own syrups, tinctures, bitters, foams, and use freshly juiced vegetables and fruits.  They make ingredients just like chefs; hence other mixologists call themselves “bar chefs.”  They are very passionate with crafting cocktails, they would tell you the history of every spirit they use, and may even tell you where their fruits, vegetables, and eggs are sourced.

There are many self proclaimed mixologists that make drinks that are out of this world, and there are many with great ideas, but cannot execute well.  The question is, “can they tend bar?” To a guest, the drinks won’t matter how good your drinks are if you are not taking care of them first and foremost.  Simple acknowledgment, great service and hospitality towards guests are the reasons they will come back.  It’s the experience we sell, and not just food and drinks.  People have a lot of choices where to drink and eat, but they would choose a place where they can have a great time.

I am hoping that all bartenders start making great drinks.  It is all subjective on what makes a good drink, I fully understand that, but it is either they are lazy, afraid of change, or the bar owner is protecting their cost and does not want to spend on better ingredients.  Unfortunately, it is all of the above for majority of bartenders in the world.  Truth be told, you cannot make great drinks using cheap ingredients.  A good bartender may be able to balance the ingredients well, and come up with a good drink, but it will never be great.  Have you ever heard anybody say they like their cocktails better made with cheap sour mix, than with fresh lemon juice and sugar?

Luckily, over the past few years, there have been a great amount of bartenders that have embraced the craft of the cocktail all over again. The profession was seriously damaged when all the sweet cocktails made with cheap mixes became very popular in the 80s and 90s, and bartenders became lazy and stopped caring about the craft.  Now, restaurants and bars are making their own bitters and syrups and only using fresh juices again, just like they did before prohibition.  Bartenders used to be celebrities, and were dressed as well as actors, doctors, and politicians back in the day.

If you are a bartender and embrace mixology, then I will call you a craft bartender.  If you are a mixologist that does not work behind the bar, I will call you a mixologist, if that is a title that rocks your boat.  Bartenders and mixologists have different skill sets, one is not better than the other, although the term mixologist has a negative connotation.  Bartender is non pretentious, however, I have heard non-bartenders label themselves bartenders just to impress people.  I once heard from a hiring manager that he can teach monkeys how to make drinks, but can never teach them to tend bar.





Am I a bartender or a mixologist?  Bartender is a title that I have been very proud to call myself for over 17 years, but only started getting passionate about the craft of the cocktail about 5 years ago. It kinda makes me shrug a little bit when people label me mixologist.  There always seem to be a joke there somewhere when people mention the “M word.”  If the title mixologist was given to you by your employer, then fine, but if you gave the title to yourself, it is very pretentious.  The best quote I have ever heard was said by Angus Winchester, founder of Bar Consultancy Alconomics.  “I am not a mixologist, cocktailian, drinksmith, bar chef, intoxicologist, spiritual adviser, sultan of shake or any of these other titles that we have invented to get ourselves paid more and laid more. I am a bartender first and foremost.”    Just like Angus, I am a bartender first and foremost.

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