What Is The Difference Between Mixology and Bartending?
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
One of the questions that's asked the most frequently in our cocktail classes, is the difference between the term mixology and bartending. And the truth is these words have been used sometimes interchangeably, and sometimes in complete opposition, but as time has passed and the dust has settled and the cocktail revolution of the 2000s turned into the cocktail renaissance of the 2010s, we have a pretty agreed upon definition.
Mixology is what happens before the guests (for home bartenders) or customers (for professional bartenders) arrive, and the bartending is what you do when you get there.
Look at this picture of Damian, one of our bartenders and also a lead bartender at A. Bar in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. You can see him lighting the oils of an orange peel on fire as he prepares to demonstrate a thrown perfect martini. That's the bartending part.
Look at the perfectly cut and arranged orange peels neatly arranged in under him, to see the mixology. Mixology is meticulous garnish cutting, it's making syrups, infusions, shrubs, bitters, etc. It's the stuff that happens before the show that makes the show possible.
The higher end the bar, or event, or cocktail, the more mixology is involved behind the scenes
Typically our events can involve at least 4 hours of prep for every one hour of service. This is a big difference from a regular cocktail bar, which might involve only opening gin and a bottle of tonic water. Just like a fine dining restaurant, this prep is artfully concealed from the audience, and they only see the surface cocktails! But it's worth mentioning that quite a bit of thought goes into every event.
Bartender first, mixologist second
When designing an event or working a bar, or serving customers, it's very important to think like a bartender primarily. For example, when Kevin, one of our master instructors and an alumni of Eleven Madison Park and the Nomad hotel, is planning an event, his first questions are logistics: Are the sanitation and ice stations for every bartender and what are the supply lines for them. Once the basics are established, the more sophisticated elements of the event or venue can begin.
Customer and guest first, the drink second
Another way to think of the same concept is from a hospitality standpoint. Bartenders are primarily concerned with the emotional experience of the guest and customer. Are people happy? Why are they here? Do they have a glass of water in front of them? Are the steps of service being followed. Luciano, one of our alumni and the lead bartender at Gran Caffe L'Aquila, will even set up his bar differently depending on the time of day. Everything the bartender does is in the now, in the immediate service of the guest.
Mixologists are concerned primarily with the cocktail, it's design, presentation, and preparation. This is the "homework" that must be done before service, and it enables full focus on the guest. You wouldn't want a personal trainer who is unfamiliar with how to use a barbell or design an anaerobic threshold workout, and you wouldn't want a bartender who hasn't paid his mixologist dues in study, design, prep, and presentation.
Bartender and mixologists must combine to achieve extraordinary service
Both mentalities are ultimately needed for world class service that surpasses expectations. The best bartenders of the 90s, for example, no matter how affable, athletic, and likable, didn't have the technical skills and understanding to really provide a lush presentation, and fresh flavors to their guests that are on par with what's expected today. And the best mixologists of the present day would do well to study this NYT article, of which I'm quoting below, of Doug Quinn. A bartender through and through that the mixologists coming up in 2010 couldn't help but revere.
He filled beer mugs without watching what he was doing. He could apparently tell, by the weight of them, when to stop. He plucked bottles from their perches without pausing to check labels. He apparently had, in his head, the whole liquor layout at P.J. Clarke’s, on the East Side.
And he remembered what my companion and I were drinking, even though we had ordered just one round so far, and there were at least 35 people clumped around the bar on this early May night, and he was dealing — alone — with all the tickets from all the servers in the adjacent dining rooms, and he wasn’t writing anything down, not that I could see.
“Another?” was all he asked, and a half minute later I had a Hendrick’s gin martini, up, with olives and jagged little floes of ice, just like the martini before it. My companion was sipping a second Manhattan with rye, not bourbon, per his initial request. Mr. Quinn works quickly, and he works without error.
It is legend, this efficiency of his. I learned of it one night at PDT, a faux speakeasy in the East Village — secret entrance, abundant taxidermy — that’s about as far in spirit (and spirits) from the blunt, timeless rough-and-tumble of P. J. Clarke’s as you can get. I asked Jim Meehan, the cocktail shaman there, whom he and other celebrated young mixologists of the moment looked up to.
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