Words by: Paul Mant and Joseph Brooke
What's the best way to describe modern drinks makers? Does the term 'bartender' cover it, or is 'mixologist' a better description? Does one term wear a cloak of respectability as a result of history - and in which case which one? Has the word mixologist been hijacked by marketeers and PRs? We stoke the fires of a major controversy.
We asked Paul Mant, former bar manager at Quo Vadis, London and now running drinks consultancy Hearts, Heads and Tails, to argue the 'bartender' case, and Joseph Brooke, bar manager at Salvatore Calabrese's new Los Angeles project, Mixology101, to take the 'mixologist' side.
First, let me say I'm not going to slag off the term 'mixologist'. What this argument really revolves around is the distinct difference between two types of bar-person: those who care more about drinks/mixology and those who care more about customers/guests. It is, of course, possible to care about both, sometimes in equal measure but I have worked with very few pros with this level of benevolence.
That said, I clearly recall the exact moment when I became aware of the difference between the two. I walked into a popular West End cocktail bar (that all readers of this article will be familiar with, but shall remain nameless) to meet a friend who was about to knock off for the evening. I was very politely asked what I would like to drink. When I replied saying I would like a glass of wine, something dry, the polite bartender laughed in my face, turned to his bar-back and said: "You can do that, I make the cocktails round here."
Keeping my astonishment to myself, I sat and read my paper as he did the same at the other end of the bar. My mate - the laughing mixologist's boss - informed his cheery bar-keep that he was leaving him to lock up (to go out with me). Said bar-keep responded by telling his boss that he should clean a station before he goes. I don't really need to help you, the reader of a drinks industry magazine, to pick the bones out of that one. So let's take it a step further......
The year is 2022. Global Currency is the EuroYen, downloaders get paid to listen to music, the Pope is a transgender lesbian and, most shockingly, the comedy shitfight that is social responsibility has dictated that liquors cannot be mixed prior to consumption. Sounds crazy? Well, the last one really isn't that crazy (neither is the first but this isn't Monocle). Social responsibility guidelines get funnier and funnier by the day, but the point is this: if mixing alcohols became illegal, how many barpersons do you know that could ply their trade and make their tips just by being nice to people?
I am not the only one who is sick and tired of people acting as if they are curing cancer by making drinks. I came to the realisation a long time ago that the next-gen mixologist types were far better at all that caper than I would ever be and, at my last bar, found myself teaching new hires the nuances of discretion, humility and networking as opposed to bricks ratios, NOM numbers and foamy spherified caviars.
An impeccable example of the discretion, humility and networking can be seen in The Sopranos. Tony is dining in a restaurant with his mistress and is beautifully taken care of by the classy Italian maitre'd. The next scene is the next night at the same restaurant. This time Tony is with his wife and the same front-of-house man greets them by saying "Meester Tony! How were you been? We no see you anymore." Tony might have been a murderous sociopath but as far as good, personal service goes the only gangster in the room was the maitre'd.
Was that a winning argument? Maybe not, but I feel that it conveys the current zeitgeist among my contemporaries. So Mister Mixologist, let's see what you've got. Maybe I'll meet you across the stick one day and when I do, mine's a glass of wine... and you're going to have to work your arse off for the tip.
Also, I hate almost all bitters, but that's another story.
Before I dive into the veritable shark tank of this debate, and as I'm representing the side that's essentially wearing a wetsuit made of raw meat, I have to be honest: I am considered a mixologist, and I work at a bar that is named "Mixology 101". I am, quite literally, tied to the moniker.
I'm well-aware of how the industry's communal upper lip curls every time the word is mentioned (my friends and I have actually based a brutal drinking game on it). And I'm quite aware of the stigma that comes with introducing oneself as a mixologist. Some will continue to introduce themselves as one, throwing the term out with a frequency equivalent to the standard Hollywood star-fucker, name-dropping to get into the proverbial club where all the actors and producers are. These people, these "Shortcutologists", are who I imagine we all think of when somebody drops the M-bomb in the middle of a perfectly good conversation, like a turd in a punchbowl.
In truth, before I worked at Mixology101, I never once called myself a mixologist. The closest I've ever come to calling myself the dreaded "m-word" has only ever been through facetious, self-deprecating titles, such as "cocktographer", "batchologist", or even "master bittersmith".
But let's just assume, however, for the purpose of this dialogue, that a true mixologist is something other than the aforementioned garden-variety douchebag. I've been called a mixologist by others quite often, and believe it or not it doesn't always come with the negative connotation 98.5 per cent of my friends so gleefully place on it.
If that's the case, then what exactly can it - should it - mean? The word itself entered the American lexicon around the mid-1800s, but I think the practice has been around since well before then. We know that beverage alcohol didn't start out being sold across a bar, rather it was people mixing it with a number of things, from purifying brackish water to mixing water and wine for mass. Before we learned to tend bar, we learned to mix drinks. I will go out on a limb and say that mixologists pre-date bartenders, and therefore shouldn't be considered as much of a four-letter word.
Nowadays, I believe a mixologist and a bartender have a symbiotic relationship. You can be the fastest, most magnetic, most honest and technically proficient bartender in town, but that doesn't say anything about your knowledge of the craft, its vast history, or the complex simplicity of the ingredients in your cocktails. Conversely, you can be an absolute master of flavour pairing and cocktail balance with a meticulous eye for details and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of beverage alcohol, but does that mean you know how to make a customer at your bar feel at home in the middle of a three-deep night when your bar-back called in sick and the credit card machine just went down? Not necessarily. In order to be the best possible example of fine service behind a bar, you need to be both.
At the end of the day, though, a name is just a name. It's what you do that matters. Kurt Cobain wasn't the one who called it "grunge". It was most likely the executive-level aggregate of his industry that needed to place a label on it to more easily market it to the MTV generation. He was the guy who just wanted to keep making his art.
Rather than stick to one side of this debate or the other, I ask you to figure out what I should be called once you've sat at my bar and ordered a drink. Regardless of what my title is, that's the reason you'll find me there.