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What’s the Difference Between a Bartender and Mixologist?

What’s the difference between a Bartender and a Mixologist?

Jim Meehan of the New York bar PDT: “A mixologist serves drinks, a bartender serves people–many of my favorite bartenders can’t make a good drink, while some of the best mixologists in America can’t carry on a conversation.”

Is it really that simple?  No…

But it is not a bad place to start.

The Bartender

In the 1960s, Jackie Gleason, played a Joe the Bartender every week in a TV-sketch, as an excuse to have a funny exchange with an odd customer.  Jackie would listen to an increasing bizarre tale until they got to the punchline then customer Frank Fontaine, (aka Crazy Guggenheim) would suddenly transform into a perfect Tenor, belt out a beautiful song, then revert to being odd again and walk out of the bar.

It may have been a completely contrived situation however it was a big hit with the audience, and it pretty clearly showed the relationship between a bartender and a customer.

 How We Do It

Bartenders interact with their customers.  Yes, they prepare and serve drinks, but their real function is acting like a host.  They make people feel welcome in an otherwise strange environment.  Sometimes they simply listen; sometimes they commiserate; sometimes they advise.

At other times they talk, chat, tell jokes, or do a little close up magic.  Most good bartenders are really closet entertainers.  In just about every important and definable way they are a host.  They make their customers feel comfortable; they make sure the customers are having a good time; that make sure they’re not getting too drunk or dangerous to themselves.

The Mixologist

Historically the mixologist would receive the barrels of liquor which were generally uncomfortably high in alcoholic content.  It was their job to dilute the whiskey, rum, or whatever with water to bring it down to a drinkable level.  They would often be responsible for blending whiskeys to make something customized, or distinctive, for the particular bar.

In the case of whiskeys in particular, they were sometimes shipped with specific water drawn from the source of the original water used to create the whiskey.  This is known as Branch Water.  It’s generally iron-free and will not affect the taste of the whiskey when it is diluted.

Coming of the Cocktails

As liquors & liqueurs became more regional and distinctive patrons developed a sensibility about flavors, tastes, and combinations; they began to consider what flavors would go well together.

Wine gave way to sherry, port, and brandy; straight whisky became whiskey and branch, and then whiskey and soda, and then whiskey and sarsaparilla.  Pretty soon rum and sarsaparilla was common.

It was only a matter of time before people started getting really creative.

At that point the mixologist became sort of a specialist.  More sophisticated drinks required more sophisticated preparations.  Nowadays we make Gomme Syrup, prepare particular infusions, and create custom cocktail blends.  Almost all of our work as Mixologists is done before the customer arrives.

So which are you?

Why, you could be both kinds, and you should be, too.  Until a customer arrives you can be doing prep work; it can be an hour or two before you meet your first customer; it can be an hour or more after you see your last customer.  You can be busy making syrups, tinctures, bitters, infusions, and blends.  At that point you’re a mixologist.

As soon as a customer comes through the door and walks up to the bar, you are now a bartender.  That’s how it should be.  I’ll make you a dirty martini; I’ll stick a fancy little umbrella in your Mai Tai; I’ll pour your scotch neat, on-the-rocks.  But no matter what I’m doing, fancy or plain, I’m still a bartender.


It said that a Mixologist will make you a drink that you’ll remember all night, but a Bartender will create an experience that you’ll remember forever.

Do you want to be that guy or gal?  We’re more than happy to show you how to become a bartender.

Learning the skills you need has never been easier or more economical than attending our Online Bartending School.   We’ll show you how to be a bartender and it won’t cost hundreds of dollars.  Plus the video lesson support is always available for you anytime, 24 hours a day, if you need a quick refresher.