While the term 'mixology' is not new by any means, it was brought back into vogue by dedicated craftsmen who wanted to break the two-decade bartending lull post the 'Mad Men' era. But based on the common understanding of 'mixology' and 'bartending', one could use both interchangeably.
But this post is not a thesaurus, and I disagree slightly with this muddling of both terms. So let's dig in, shall we? 😁
At their core, both roles have one giant overlap. Whether it is a mixologist or a bartender, both create alcoholic concoctions that generally amplify the base taste of liquor.
Just as we have palette-numb chefs on the culinary side, some idiotic bartenders can't tell the difference between cocktails and sugar syrups. But for now, let us talk about the ones that do know what they're supposed to do.
So, even though both essentially mix drinks, I contest that each has an additional responsibility that is difficult to describe. The closest analogy that I can draw is the dynamic duo of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Every successful company needs both. Similarly, every pub needs a mixologist and a bartender.
Based on my experiences in India, I'd argue that most pubs need a bartender first. We've gone way past the era where a waiter could double as a bartender by mixing a whisky with soda. In some restaurants, you still have the privilege of mixing them yourself! God, I love those dives. 🤣
Anyway, in my head, a mixologist needs to have a research mindset. They need to constantly chase new flavours and combinations to stay at the top of the game. At this point, pretty much everyone expects a bartender to make a decent Old fashioned, Cosmo, or LIIT. A mixologist adds his/her spin, thereby introducing a new dimension to the drinks.
What's the best example that comes to mind? The Majestic Sour, at Foxtrot, in Bangalore. It's a slightly twisted take on the traditional whisky sour that sports a hint of saffron and spice to the otherwise sour concoction to lend it an aromatic touch. Now, that's some mixing!
Another example also comes to mind. On a trip to Pondicherry with my school friend, we decided to create our indigenous cocktail through a combination of luck and laziness. Obviously, we did not know any better back then. So a travesty was born out of the amalgamation of London Dry Gin, an orange-flavoured rum and good ol' tonic water. I still cringe. But we polished the bottle back then, and I have no complaints. 🤐
So who's a bartender then? Well, the name gives away more than a hint, right? He/she is a person who needs to tend a bar and everything that goes on around it. Mixing drinks is only one part of their job. Interacting with patrons, swapping helpful anecdotes, celebrating with party-goers and just being there for the sad lot are some of the secondary tasks that a bartender needs to excel in. And this is why I call bartending an art.
One needs to understand complex ingredients to be a good mixologist. But they need to understand people to be a good bartender. Every alcohol has a signature mood attached to it. Some are good for an afternoon sneak, while others are good for a long session in the evening. Some elevate spirits (I am referring to the human one), while others calm down nerves. A good bartender knows what does their crowd need.
But, while a good bartender knows what the crowd needs, a great bartender knows what they don't! For instance, never hand a gang of wobbly-kneed teenagers a bunch of Jägerbombs. Aside from the fact that a couple of them will 'literally' keel over, collecting the cheque becomes exponentially tricky. 😂
Most flamboyant bartenders have certain showmanship about them. It's nothing short of a performance when a master bartender lines up the perfect shooters in a row or mixes a beautiful Mai Tai right in front of you.
But every bartender does not need to put on a show. Likewise, not every mixologist needs to push the boundaries of the cocktail palette. It's just that rarely can you find both qualities in a single person. And, which is why having a pair of them can do wonders for a bar. They can form the yin and yang of the cocktail game where one side pushes your perception of alcoholic drinks slightly further every time, and the other side keeps the familiarity of the bar very much alive.
I guess I've only met two guys so far who could carry both titles with equal charm. And that shows how rare these lads/lassies are or how few bars I frequent. 😅 But the latter assumption is wrong, so the former must be true. 😁
So as a final flourish, let me explain my motivation behind writing this post. It's simply a message on behalf of all my bartender buddies out there.
Mixology is a science and a precise one at that. Bartending is an art and a long-lost one at that. So, the next time you see someone mix a knockout drink, forget whether they're a mixologist or a bartender and do three things -
Address them by their name
Tell them how much you loved the drink
And make sure you leave a generous tip!