If you look up mixology in the dictionary, you’ll find something very similar to this definition: The art or skill of preparing mixed drinks.
The main difference between a bartender and a mixologist is not necessarily so cut and dry. Anyone who tends bar can be considered a bartender. Therefore, if someone works in a pub that just sells draught and bottled beer as well as mixed drinks like rum and cokes, gin and tonics etc, they would be considered a bartender.
A mixologist on the other hand, usually refers to someone who is more skilled in the art of blending, mixing, preparing and creating cocktails. A mixologist is someone who is familiar with all the ingredients that make up a cocktail – from the spirits and different liqueurs to the syrups, bitters, cordials, and different mixes. They work with more ‘advanced’ ingredients like infused alcohols, herbs, exotic fruit, flavoured teas, flowers etc. Mixologists tend to be innovators in the cocktail arena – they know their ingredients very well and experiment constantly, continually coming up with new and innovative drinks and techniques. These are the people that are normally called upon to do market research, product development or are hired as consultants to create drink menus for new bars, lounges and restaurants.
Someone who has studied mixology may also be slightly more knowledgeable about the type of glassware that is used for each of the different cocktails. Mixologists are taught that certain glassware is used not only to enhance the presentation of the cocktails but can even bring out the flavour of certain ingredients. Most bartenders, if taught at all, are simply taught which glassware pairs with which drinks – they are generally not given an understanding as to why this is the case.
If someone has been bartending in a variety of upscale establishments – like cocktail lounges or martini bars, they will learn many of the traits and skills that someone would learn taking a mixology course. These bartenders may be able to make up cocktails in their heads, but they likely wouldn’t be able to explain the background and flavours of each of the spirits used or why they compliment each other. And most bartenders don’t have the opportunity to use the ingredients that mixologists do because most bars just don’t stock such ‘exotic’ stuff.
If you’ve been bartending for some time now and are looking to get more involved in the creative aspects of mixology, you’re going to need to learn a few things. You’ll need to understand the flavours of each of the liqueurs as well as which spirits pair well together. You’ll want to find out how the preparation of a cocktail – shaken, stirred or blended, for example – affects its taste. And you’ll want to start experimenting with combinations of spirits and liqueurs as well as ingredients not found in your average bar.
If you have a home bar, you should have some of the essential bartending tools you need to get you started on the road to mixology mastery. If you don’t have a mixology course or mixology school available in your hometown or you just want to learn on your own, pick up some cocktail recipe books and start experimenting. Make sure you write down everything you create and rate your concoctions. Make note of which combinations work well together and try to get some other people tasting the creations that you deem the best.