It’s a question that’s been asked for more than a decade. With America’s 21st-century cocktail renaissance has come the rise of mixology. The term itself dates back to the 1800s but, in modern usage, it tends to signify the art and theater of expertly prepared cocktails. A bartender, on the other hand, is a bar professional whose focus is on hospitality as well as drinks.
If this strikes you as a minor difference, you’re not alone. We asked 10 bar professionals across the country to find out: Is there really a distinction between a bartender and a mixologist?
Here are their answers.
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“If you think about the word mixology as an umbrella for ‘the study of cocktails,’ then a mixologist is someone who is devoted to that study. A bartender is someone that works and tends to guests behind a bar. A bartender can be a mixologist, but a mixologist doesn’t necessarily need to be a bartender. This is a volatile subject in the bar community because it was a term created to give the bartender career some sort of social value. However the barkeep was always a valued member of society, long before the term mixology existed.” – Diego Peña, head bartender, Eastern Standard, Boston
“A mixologist cares about the drink. A bartender cares about the customer.” – Justin Pike, bar manager, The Tasting Kitchen, Los Angeles
“I don’t really see too much of a difference between mixologist and bartender. I consider myself a bartender who happens to make craft drinks, classic drinks, pour beers… I want to make, and make well, whatever my customer will enjoy.” – Missy Koefod, owner and CEO, 18.21 Bitters, Atlanta
“I am a bartender and any good bar only has bartenders. The word mixologist was created to elevate the profession, but in my opinion, it has never needed elevating. Now, in the corporate world the word mixologist can make sense, like the corporate mixologist of a liquor company, because they are not actively working at a bar… Mixologists serve drinks, bartenders serve people.” – Alejandro De La Parra, bar manager, Teardrop Lounge, Portland, Ore.
“The difference between a bartender and a mixologist would be intent and preparation. A mixologist has the intent that every drink they put out will be a measure of the quality and merit as a bartender… With that said I prefer to be called a bartender. It seems nowadays the title mixologist carries with it an air of pretentiousness and self-righteousness. At the end of the day whether whipping up a Ramos or refilling a glass of water, I’m a man tending a bar.” – Zachary Russell, bar manager, Prohibition, Houston
“All in all, a mixologist is a bartender who specializes in the creation and execution of cocktails. Bartenders represent all aspects of our craft. Bartenders engage guests, clean glasses, sweep the floor, make cocktails, etc. They are only mixologists when needed.” – Brian Buscher, bartender, Skull’s Rainbow Room, Nashville
“I have ‘INTOXICOLOGIST’ emblazoned atop my business card, poking a bit of fun at the whole mixologist-versus-bartender thing… Some bartenders think a mixologist is just an arrogant tattooed kid with a waxed mustache, and some ‘drink chefs’ think a bartender is well, ‘just a bartender’ that pours Fireball and Bud Light. Why can’t we all just get along? I don’t know all the history of all the old classic cocktails and I am no an encyclopedia of every new shooter recipe that comes down the pike, but I’m quick with a joke and to light up your smoke (or smoked Old Fashioned), and there’s no place that I’d rather be. I love it all.” – Bob Ruede, “intoxicologist,” Red Phone Booth, Atlanta
“A bartender’s job is to create delicious [drinks] from the many ingredients, history, and tools at their disposal. Mixology is the study of those tools (and ingredients and history). Sometimes they are not mutually exclusive and some mixologists cannot make a balanced cocktail. That’s okay! Many bartenders are not comfortable publicly presenting the protein disciplines of egg and sugar in a Pisco Sour to a room of 100 but can shake one at the end of an eleven-hour shift so good it makes you cry for another. Both have a fundamental place in this industry.” – Eden Laurin, managing partner, The Violet Hour, Chicago
“Pretense. Technically it differentiates the person creating the cocktails from a ‘standard’ bartender, but it tends to ignore the service component of bartending, focusing on the drinks rather than the people you’re serving them to; which kind of goes against the entire job of being a bartender.” – Sean Gleason, beverage director, Biltong Bar, Atlanta
“They’re truly the same thing. I think the only real difference between a mixologist and a bartender is time period. If you were tending bar alongside Jerry Thomas, you were a mixologist. Today, we’re bartenders. Mixology I think was more of a term to describe something that had never been done before, when people starting mixing cocktails for the first time. Now, it’s a little more common career and we have a more modern term to define it.” – Alex Jump, bar manager, Death & Co Denver, Denver