Bartenders and mixologists – is there a difference?
Use the word mixologist somewhere like r/bartenders on Reddit, and someone will inevitably resurrect the old line: "A mixologist is just a bartender who can't fight."
It goes some way to summarising the general sentiment of those in the industry when it comes to this controversial term, and yet it keeps coming up, used not only by consumers who don't know better, but by those in the trade too. Perhaps there's some merit to it, or there are specific situations where it's useful to distinguish between those who tend bar and those who... mix?
In its defence – at least in part – the term has some history to it, and isn’t, as you might assume, a relatively recent invention. “I’ve seen its usage as long ago as 1860, and it was widely used in the latter half of that century,” says Jake Burger, of Portobello Road Gin & The Ginstitute.
That's not to say the term wasn't ridiculous when it was first used over 150 years ago – it may well have been. But it has more than just a few years on it, which presumably counts for something.
“I’ve always thought if you’re going to go for it with an overblown title, you should go the whole hog. And if you are going to go down that route, then William Pitcher of The Tremont House on Boston will take some beating,” continues Burger.
Pitcher, he says, had business cards printed in 1862 that referred to himself as both “Rexabacifamulorum” and “Professor of Kratistalektronouratation”. The former roughly translates from Latin as “king of the attendants of the bar”, while the latter, translated from Greek, is something like “the art of making the best cocktail”
“So yeah, if pressed I’ll take Professor of Kratistalektronouratation over mixologist or bartender any day…” concludes Burger.
A cross-section of people working in the UK on-trade offer their thoughts on the subject.
Sergio Leanza, Funkidory, London
“When consumers refer to me as a mixologist, I'm grateful and know that they want to compliment me. That's great, but I hate the way the industry, or some people in the industry, call themselves mixologists – I find it to be very cocky.
“I think it’s become a very pretentious term for some people. I’d much rather refer to myself as a bartender. I tend bars and I'm a curious bartender.”
Mia Kumari, The American Bar at The Savoy, London
“The definition of the words bartender and mixologist, to me, are one and the same. However, I find there are negative connotations and ego associated with the word mixologist, so I prefer being called a bartender.
“I don’t like to overcomplicate the truth of my career, which is that I love finding new ways to make tasty drinks for people! If that makes me a bartender, a mixologist, or both, I don’t mind.”
Scott Stevenson, Ga Ga Kitchen, Glasgow
“The term mixologist is thrown around too easily and frequently when talking about a person that makes drinks… A bartender is what I like to be called, because that’s what I’m doing – I’m tending bar, making people all manner of drinks, and I’m making people happy.
“A mixologist is a fine thing to be called, don’t get me wrong. In a way I am one. I create drinks from scratch and carefully document the recipes. That’s a mixologist!”
Thom Solberg, Jinjuu, London
“The word bartender carries some stigma with it, where some people probably feel like they can't justify their careers as bartenders. I think it comes down to how people perceive the role as something temporary, until you get your permanent job.
“So, I think the term ‘mixologist’ was invented out of insecurity, needing to justify the amount of time it has taken you as a bartender to learn the skills you have learned, in order to do a job that is often undermined as 'unskilled labour'.
“I don't think it's useful to distinguish between a 'mixologist' and a 'bartender'. I see them as essentially the same job. Some people might claim that mixologist is a more creative and developmental job, but surely the creative element of bartending doesn't require separation? I feel that the more we compartmentalise the role of a bartender, the less inclusive the community becomes.”
Looking for more drinks industry insights?
Join the entire drinks industry at Imbibe Live, 3-4 July 2023. The UK's #1 drinks sourcing event.
Rasa Gaidelyte, Home Bar, London
“A mixologist is just a bartender who's being arrogant and wants to make themselves feel or sound more important by calling themselves something more special. It’s the reason why industry bartenders use the term as a fun insult, to tease each other.”
Renaud de Bosredon, Louie, London
“Is it useful to differentiate between a bartender and a mixologist? The short answer is yes, but mixologists don’t really exist yet. If you’re a chef, you’re called a chef, regardless of whether you work in a pub or the most advanced kitchen in the world. If you’re a sommelier, you are a sommelier, even if you’re a Master of Wine or Master Sommelier. But for both of those, very advanced courses and education exist globally.
“The hard truth is that few bartenders have sufficient knowledge to compare themselves to the food and wine elite, and we sadly do not have any structure to measure and acknowledge that. We have competitions to judge creativity, and knowledge to some extent, but it rarely includes global product knowledge.
“Also, the word ‘mixologist’ is flawed, as it has a scientific connotation yet I don’t believe any bartender, apart from maybe a couple of people around the world, can be considered to have pushed experimentation to the level of hard science – so it comes across as pretentious among peers.
“So yes, the differentiation is good, allowing us to put forward the thinkers and innovators of our world, but it came too early, got used too broadly, and the terminology feels unadapted.”
Fabio Spinetti, The Donovan Bar, London
“I might be old school, but I prefer the term bartender.
“With the term mixologist, I think more of someone focused almost solely on the creativity and creation of new drinks, but I also associate it with the less-positive need of wanting a self-given title to feel like the elevated version of something else.
“When it comes to the reality of service, I think mixologists and bartenders end up doing the same job – dealing with guests, preparing any libation they might ask for, or suggesting their next favourite drink, while hopefully managing to take their thoughts and troubles away, even for just an hour. And making them want to return to your bar. Which is why I’m not sure we need the distinction.”
Zach Sapato, Mikaku, Glasgow
“Mixology has come to be associated with two tropes bartenders don't love. First, the moustachioed mixologist in suspenders who is more concerned with explaining pre-Prohibition recipes than whether or not you care to listen. Second, social media mixologists who can make a drink visually presentable without the diverse skills and harsh realities of actual bartending.
Mixology, the study of mixing, is a small piece of the bartender's skill set. Bartenders also study the hospitality of service and empathy, biology and psychology of flavour perception, the art and aesthetics of presentation, the sociology of safe spaces and conflict de-escalation, the balance of entertainment and accommodation, and so much more. While the study of mixing is certainly an aspect of the job, it is far from sufficient to describe what we do.
“Calling a bartender a mixologist is like calling a journalist a ‘professional speller’ - it's not wrong, but don't be surprised if they laugh.
Andrei Marcu, Coupette, London
“I don’t believe in the word mixologist – it tells me nothing.
“We are bartenders. We tend bars and make sure our guests have a great experience, from the moment they come in until they leave. That’s what we should focus on. The actual drinks, and how complex they are or not, are just the cherry on the cake – everything before that is way more important.
“Let’s just be bartenders and tend our bars.”
Enjoy this article? Make sure to share it!
View the latest drinks articles we have published
Receive our latest news monthly for free straight to your inbox
Looking for something else?