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Is ‘mixologist’ a pretentious job title?

While some members of the on-trade see the title of mixologist as a sign of skill and experience, others see it as pretentious and unnecessary – we put the question to two debaters.

Mixologist-or-bartender
Are you bartender, or mixologist?

As bartending gains in prestige across the globe and standards continue to soar, more and more members of the on-trade are referring to themselves as a “mixologist”.

But this term is not without controversy as many self-defined bartenders claim the title is not only unnecessary, but is also often undeserved.

So, is it appropriate to use the term “mixologist” or does “bartender” suffice? Do you mix or tend bar? Live to serve or shake? Our debaters deliberate the contentious question.

On this panel sits Chris Tunstall, founder of abarabove.com and James Connolly, former head bartender at Perth, Australia’s Rockpool Bar & Grill.

Which of our revered judges do you agree with? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Chris Tunstall, founder, abarabove.com

Debate-1The debate regarding the terms “bartender” and “mixologist” has been going for my entire bartending career, and there seems to be no end in sight. The term mixologist conveys different messages to different people. To some people, it means “bar chef”, while others use the term to identify a bartender who has superior knowledge about cocktails. To others, it conjures up an image of a narcissistic and patronising bartender who treats his guests as inferiors. I still hesitate to answer when guests ask me if I’m a mixologist – because I’m not exactly sure what preconceived notions they have with the term.

But, for me, mixologist is a perfectly acceptable term. The goals of the bartender and mixologist are the same, but their roles are different. A bartender’s role is to be completely focused on the guests, to make them feel comfortable and ensure they have a great time. They make them feel welcome, appreciated, and build relationships with them. They are the friend a person needs after a rough day. Bartending is a very social role, and the skill set of a good bartender is aligned with this.

For mixologists, our role is customer service before the customer ever arrives. This means choosing the best products that match our establishment and creating signature cocktails that help to reinforce the atmosphere we are looking for. We have a deep understanding of engineering drinks: how to extract flavours and make them work together. We use this knowledge to create recipes then put those recipes in the hands of our bartenders who help keep the guests coming back. As a mixologist, our focus is on the drink, but always keeping the guest in mind. I feel like mixology is a key part of our business and that’s why I’m proud to call myself one.

Whatever we call ourselves, we need to recognise that our goal is customer service and both are important to create a memorable experience for the guest. Mixology creates the recipes while bartending creates the mood. People shouldn’t shy away from calling themselves a mixologist if that’s their job.

James Connolly, head bartender, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Perth

Debate-2Mixologist, otherwise known as liquid wizard, drinks architect, or beverage engineer – we all get called it but it’s kind of a dirty word isn’t it? I don’t know of any bartender that openly calls himself a mixologist and the only people who actually call us mixologists are the press and older family members, but it seems that we don’t really complain when they do.

It makes our humble and rewarding job sound more exciting, like we are saving lives or something. I guess the term mixologist is so much more saleable than bartender, it conjures up images of white coats, safety goggles and Bunsen burners, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the “mixologists” I know can be found drinking cans of beer and rye whiskey until the early hours of the morning.

The dictionary definition for bartender and mixologist are almost identical, so is there a difference between Dave who works in your local boozer and Tarquin who works in the high-end mixology theatre? Of course one of them knows all his customers by first name, knows what they like to drink and mixes a mean rum and coke. The other probably has bad social skills but can tell you how many grams per litre of sugar are in all the liqueurs on his mixology bench.

The term mixologist came around in the 1800s back when being a bartender was a highly regarded profession, taking years of apprenticeship. Now, as soon as you can make a Daiquiri you’re deemed a mixologist. If someone calls themself a sommelier you’d imagine they would have passed an exam, completed a theory test and been working in the wine game for a while. If someone calls themselves a “mixologist”, there is no exam, no test, but they have got 150 different types of bitters in their lab at home.

Take Heston Blumenthal, he as much as anyone should be able to call himself a gastronomist but no he just calls himself a chef. The term mixologist will be around for a while and if people wish to call themselves this, then so be it. You can call me what you like as long as you’re having a good time and enjoying your drinks, but I’ll always see myself as a bartender.

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