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More than Mixology

January 19, 2013

More and more I have thought about the Bartender vs. Mixologist argument, and more and more something wasn’t settling right about it with me.  Ever since I did the post entitled “We Don’t Do Mixology Here”, there was another layer in the bottom of that that I hadn’t tasted, a part of the puzzle that was missing.

I got to chatting with my buddy Natalie Bovis aka The Liquid Muse about it as she always helps pry loose what is stuck and put my finger back on the pulse of the cocktail world.  And from this conversation, this post (now in the forth rewrite) is the result.

I think we are backwards on this argument.  A Mixologist (a person skilled in making mixed drinks), may or may not be a person who works in a bar serving drinks to the public (a bartender).  And mixology is, in fact, only ONE of the skills that makes a great bartender.

Let me say that again…..

Mixology is only ONE of the skills that make a great bartender.

Bartenders must have many skills.  In reality, it takes more than making drinks to run a bar or be a bartender.  It’s a balancing act of dozens of skills at all have to happen at once with informed, concise decisions that can’t wait for a long conversation like most other professions who have the time to call  meeting after meeting to make a move.  A bartender has to be fast on his/her feet and constantly watching, judging, and responding to a crowd of people where the dynamics change each time a new person walks in the bar or another leaves.

Let me give you an example:

Bartender speaking to a new two new guests coming in,” HI, How are you tonight?”

Guests “We’re great thanks!”

Bartender,” What can I get you to drink?”

Guest 1,” I’ll have a vodka and soda.”

Guest 2” Shot of whiskey and a beer.”

Bartender,” Great may I see your ID’s?”

Guests pass along ID”S

Now, in this short 10 second interaction, the bartender has sized up the relationship between the two guests, looked at how they are dressed and their attitudes deciding what the occasion for the visit to the bar is, taken into account the time, and watched their body language, and listened to their speech to determine their moods and established how much, if anything, have they already had to drink.  10 seconds.  Keep in mind that this is done, calculated and remembered for every patron in the bar.

Doesn’t stop there.  Few jobs require an employee to be on their feet for hours on end contorting the body in ways it’s not meant to move as the bartender reaches in, out, up , down, over, around, twisting and turning to get bottles, squeezers, glasses, napkins, straws, and garnishes.  The bartender is balancing every guest in the room trying to serve as fast and as seamless as possible so there is little disruption to the guest experience.  It requires eating standing up most of the time, hours that do not coincide with the rest of the world and sometimes not peeing for a couple hours because it’s just too damn busy for a potty break. Lifting kegs that weigh 130+ pounds, trash cans full of bottles having to be heaved sometimes six feet in the air, mopping floors, washing dishes, and all the while keeping an eye on every guest in the room making sure the booze and behavior are all good.

(I love this video)

And yes this happens

That brings us to bouncing.  Stopping service to someone who is, shall we say, less than pleased about being cut off can be tricky.  Having the right people skills to do this is essential not only for a smooth situation but also for the safety and security of the bar and all other guests in the room, even to a point where the situation might get aggressive.  They don’t teach that at bartender school, or any other school for that matter.

Bar and restaurants are key targets for robberies, fights, lovers’ quarrels, family disputes, and a bartender has to be mentally and physically prepared for any and every situation that could occur at any given time.

I remember a couple years ago, I took a new bartender out for a drink after our shift one night.  We went to a local neighborhood bar, where I introduced the young bartender to the longtime owner of the bar we chose to imbibe in.  When I told the owner this was one of my new staff (which the young one smiled with pride), the owner says in his smoked rasped New Mexican voice,” Lemme tell you something.  I hired a lot of bartenders in my day, and most of them don’t kow shit about how to watch their room.” The young bartender got wide-eyed not sure what to say.  He expected something about mixology and making drinks.  Instead he got something completely different.

I have broken up fights, calmed down arguments, gotten in to “aggressive negotiations”, survived glasses being thrown and even knives being pulled.  It happens, trust me.  And the states that still honor the Dram Shop Act make it even more intense putting the responsibility of the guests behavior on the bar and bartender.

These are things the non-working “Mixologist” doesn’t experience. And don’t get me wrong here.  I love what I do! And these are rare situations, but they do happen.  It’s part of the job.

Bartenders don’t just make drinks.  As mixologists we learn chemistry, math, and physics and how they relate to making a great drink. As bartenders we are counselors (yeah it’s cliché), coaches, bouncers, police, and moderators.  Most bartenders are competent in basic construction, general maintenance and refrigeration.  And we are people persons as well.  It’s a special breed that makes a great bartender.

You can tell a bartender from a mixologist who has never worked behind the bar.  The seamless movements that a bartender makes when concocting a drink look effortless.  After all, a bartender does these drinks night in and night out over and over again.  Add craft cocktails to the mix and you really got something special.

So again I think we have looked at this from the wrong angle.  It’s not one or the other: bartender vs Mixologist.  They coincide and have a symbiotic relationship.  But for me, mixology is only a part of the job I love so.  And though it’s the part of my job that gets the notoriety, it is only one part of the recipe.

Call me what you want, I smile when I am recognized for my mixing skills an call me ‘Mixologist’, but my smile is bigger when the whole job is seen and I am called “Bartender”.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2013 7:31 pm

    Great post. And very well written. For me, it’s not one of the other. There are no “Mixologists.” There is no such thing. Either you’re a bartender or you’re not. Your relative skill at mixing craft cocktails is one part of being a bartender, and I agree with you that it is a small one.

  2. April 5, 2013 7:46 pm

    Great thoughts! And thank you for following!


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