Tending Bar

A Bartender by Any Other Name

What's the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?

By Katharine Shilcutt May 29, 2013

Flickr user Exploratorium

"He calls himself a beverage director," I overheard one of my coworkers saying yesterday of Sean Beck, the sommelier of a thousand trades at Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's. "He doesn't call himself a sommelier. I wonder why."

I couldn't resist jumping in. Beck is more than just a sommelier, after all. He works with wine, yes, but also beer, tequila, mezcal, and a host of other spirits. He doesn't just write the wine list at the two restaurants—arguably two of Houston's finest—but also decides which beers to stock and which cocktails will go on the menu. He also creates most of the cocktails himself.

"So, is he a mixologist?" my coworker asked.

"No," I replied. "I feel like most people eschew that word—especially bartenders."

And then the question arose: If you're a bartender who concentrates mostly on cocktails, what do you call yourself?

"Mixologist" is a term coined in 1865 and has long been associated with a somewhat self-aggrandizing attitude. In an October 2012 issue of American Mixologist, Ted Haigh, curator of The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, recounted how the word "mixologist" was originally used "as a show of puffery," and "reached the height of ridiculousness in the 1890s when author and principal bartender C.F. Lawlor decided the term wasn’t sufficiently grand or scientific enough, and in turn, proclaimed himself the 'Mixicologist.'"

Could the term be reaching new heights of ridiculousness, over a century later? If Portlandia is anything to judge by, the dream of the 1890s—"when everyone used to wear suspenders and carve their own ice cubes"—is alive and well, especially when it comes to the word "mixologist." It's everywhere these days.

But the biggest problem with the title of "mixologist" isn't its prevalence or even its insinuation that you're taking yourself a little too seriously with your latest liquid nitrogen-cooled creation. It's the feeling that the word "mixologist" confers: That your bartender is far more interested in mixing drinks than being a host.

This is the reason Laurie Woolery Sheddan, head bartender at Philippe, shies away from the term. "I prefer 'bartender' because it has more of a hospitality connotation, which I believe 'mixologist' usually forgets," she says. "It's about my guest, not me!"

"I am a bartender. Or barman," says Robert Harvey, who tends bar at Cottonwood. "'Mixologist' is a B.S. term. And I find most people who use the term are tying to raise their 'status.' They are the worst thing to happen to the service industry in years. Make the drinks, educate your guest when they want to be educated, and drop the attitude."

Not every bartender agrees that the term is entirely useless, however.

"I've met some [mixologists] who make you want to smack them, by acting as if the the simple act of creating a drink is somehow on par with creating medical cures," chimes in Sean Beck. "Then again the same thing goes for the term 'chef' these days. If I bartended every day, that is the title I would prefer. However, since most of the times I'm just designing and teaching the cocktails to our staff then 'mixologist' would seem more appropriate."

"I still think the 'mixologist' moniker can be intimidating," says James Watkins, beverage director for the Cordúa Group of restaurants that includes Churrascos and Américas. "I think it's crucial to provide a guest with knowledge (when welcomed), but, as with some sommeliers, we get caught up being too geeky occasionally. We have to humble ourselves and remember that the number one priority of our job is service, no matter how much blood, sweat, and infant tears go into our cocktails."

And that appears to be the key: No matter what you call yourself - bartender or mixologist - the most important facet of the job is taking care of your customers (also: never calling yourself "the Mixicologist"). That's how Sean Beck sees it.

"At then end of the day we are all just entertaining, comforting and taking care of people so they get a momentary escape from our hard-working lifestyle."

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