Episode 216 – Why I Like the Term “Mixologist”

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Happy New Year, and welcome to Episode 216 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

Featured Cocktail – Naked and Famous

This episode’s featured cocktail is the Naked and Famous. To make it, you’ll need:

  • ¾ OZ. MEZCAL


  • ¾ OZ. APEROL


Combine these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, give em a good, healthy shake until all the ingredients are properly chilled and diluted, then strain into a stemmed cocktail glass and enjoy.

This is another one of your “Modern Classic” cocktails, like the Penicillin, the Revolver, the Jungle Bird, and pretty much anything else invented in the latter half of the 20th century or during the Cocktail Renaissance. The Naked and Famous was created by New York bartender Joaquín Simó, who basically thought of it as – his words here – the “bastard love child” of a Last Word and a Paper Plane.

It’s got that lovely perfect ratio and acidity from both of those drinks, as well as the Last Word’s herbality and the Paper Plane’s slight bitterness and rosy hue. And if you take a step back just to admire the flavors in this sucker, there’s a lot to appreciate. You’ve got multiple sweet modifiers, but only one citrus juice, which might make you think that the drink would be out of balance, but the malic acid in the lime juice and the mineral and smoke components from the Mezcal are both pulling double duty to make sure that all the various flavors and tastes remain in tension, without one completely taking over.

This is my takeaway for the Naked and Famous cocktail: a truly talented mixologist (and yes, I’m using that word intentionally) can achieve “balance” in a drink by going beyond taste. In simple, 3-ingredient classics like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Martini, balance is an agreement between sweet, boozy, and slightly bitter tastes. Too sweet? Use less of the sweet thing. Too boozy, use more of the sweet thing, and maybe an extra dash of bitters. This move generally works across base spirits, across sweeteners, and across bitters.

But once you escalate to four extremely complex, unique, and assertive ingredients with TONS of flavor and texture working above and beyond the sweet/sour/bitter and boozy realm, the stakes are higher: more can go wrong – i.e. there’s more ways to mess up the drink. But with great risk comes the potential reward of realizing something so complex, unexpectedly harmonious, and noteworthy that it earns itself a spot on cocktail Olympus. That’s what the smoke, minerality, malic acid bitterness, and herbal complexity are doing here in the Naked and Famous Cocktail, pushing balance beyond mere taste and into the realm of complex flavor.

Why I Like the Term “Mixologist”

The idea for this episode came when I happened across an interesting thread on the friendliest and definitely least polemical place on the internet, where everyone treats each other with respect, cites all their sources, and never treats an opinion like a fact. So anyway…I was browsing Reddit, and I came across a conversation on the “cocktail” subreddit where someone posted a picture of an orange with one thin strip of peel taken out of it where someone had clearly used a channel knife to create a nice, thin orange twist. The title of the post was something to the effect of: “Tell me you live with a mixologist without telling me you live with a mixologist.”

The top comment sort of side-stepped the point of the post, which was: “hey guys, anyone ever encounter this common phenomenon that we may have in common?,” instead saying:

Am I the only one who hates the term mixologist? No offense to OP (which is reddit speak for “original poster”), I think this is a cute post, I’ve just always hated the term and wonder if anyone else who has tended bar for a living agrees.

If you’ve spent much time around cocktails at all, you’ve probably heard this conversation – hell, you’ve probably even engaged in it yourself. The term mixologist is one that seeped its way back into public hospitality discourse at the same time the Cocktail Renaissance began around 20 years ago, and since then, people have generally either gotten behind the term wholeheartedly, or slammed it for being pretentious. This is not a new debate, but I don’t think I’ve ever really weighed in on it here on the podcast, so I figured this would be a great time to make my stance known.

We’ll do this by first taking a good, hard look at this word, “Mixologist,” both in terms of its historical usage and its various meanings and connotations. Then, we’ll size it up compared to other words used to describe bartenders, and finally, I’ll make a case for why I think it’s a pretty good one – maybe not without fault, but certainly worth keeping around.

The History of the Word “Mixologist”

I feel like one consistent moves I make in these audio essays is to quote from David Wondrich’s book, Imbibe!. It’s almost comical in its consistency. But blame Dave for writing such a useful and definitive text. As long as it applies, I use it as my North Star.

On page 55 of the “Updated and Revised Edition,” he lays out the first textual usage of the word “mixologist.” He writes:

“In France, it takes an academy of intellectuals to modify the language. In America, all it takes is a guy with an idea. The term [mixologist] first appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1856, in a humor piece by Charles G. Leland. In it, the narrator overhears a sport in the hotel room next door referring to the bartender as a ‘mixologist of tipulars’ and of “tipicular fixings’; Leland’s coinage caught on, first humorously and then […] as a way of referring to a bartender who was, as the Washington Post later phrased it, ‘especially proficient at putting odds and ends of firewater together.’ […] By the 1870s [less than 20 years later], saloonkeepers were using it in their advertising, with only a hint of a smile.

That’s what I love about Dave’s writing: you get so much nuance in so little space. That “only a hint of a smile” shot at the end really gets me.

Regardless, my most important takeaways from this blurb are as follows:

  1. First, the word “mixologist,” like the cocktail, is an American invention. Why is that? Well, it’s because in other countries, you need an academy of intellectuals to change the language, whereas here in the U.S., all it takes is a guy with an idea. This raises a second and closely related point:

  2. “Mixologist,” is what we’d call a “neologism,” (literally, a new word). The people of the Gilded Age (both in America and abroad) were as fond of such things in the age of the telegraph as their Elizabethan forebears in the wake of the printing press. And guys, I hate to break it to you. You’re listening to a “podcast,” which was itself a neologism not all that long ago. It seems that during periods of technological disruption, these funky, hybrid words and phrases come crawling out of the woodwork.

  3. The last important takeaway from Imbibe! Is that the word “mixologist” went from a term used for shock effect in a humor piece to widespread acceptance in less than 20 years, and that was in an age before the telephone, which means it could spread only as fast as telegraphs, steam engines, and stagecoaches could transport people of means and their ideas from place to place. There must have been something to it back then, because otherwise it wouldn’t have reappeared in our midst as if summoned by the libations we rediscovered after almost a century of obsolescence.

So, if I had to just end this episode here…full stop…and make a single, elegant case for why the term “mixologist” is just fine by me, I’d simply say: well, the word “cocktail” is also a neologism. So how come you’ll order a “cocktail” one minute and complain about the “mixologist” who made it for you the next minute? It’s logically inconsistent.

Etymology of the Word “Mix”

But as you know, our fancy drinks don’t necessarily inhabit the realm of logic, straight lines, and clean mathematical proofs. They are as mongrel as the word “mixologist” itself, and to understand why, it might help to pick apart the roots of this word and think about their connotations through history.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the term,”mix.” If you’re looking to check my work on this, I use a source called (my favorite source for word origins). Here’s the first and most relevant portion of their entry for the word “mix,” which comes into English parlance in the 1530s. It means to:

unite or blend promiscuously into one mass, body, or assemblage,” […] from [the] Middle English myxte [meaning] […] “mingled, blended, composed of more than one element, […] from [the] Latin mixtus, […] “to mix, mingle, blend; fraternize with; throw into confusion.

“Promiscuously.” “Fraternize with.” “Throw into confusion.” Not only do we get the cut-and-dry denotation that entails combining multiple parts into a larger whole, but we also get these slightly tawdry connotations – these ideas and activities that tend to blossom in bars and other such dens of ill repute.

When you look at the etymology of the word “mix,” you get the distinct sense that these “parts” we’re talking about aren’t naturally designed to go together. It gives you the feeling that if things are chaotic, confused, and naughty when they’re combined, then it’s probably better to leave well enough alone and NOT tempt fate by putting them into a cocktail shaker.

Part of the history of the word “mix,” clearly has to do with the simple, material process of putting things together, but the rest seems more concerned with the aftermath…the volatile outcomes that occur when the drink hits the glass, and the drinker proceeds to empty that glass. “Mix,” ultimately, is more at home in the cluttered den of the wizard or the alchemist than it is in the sterile lab of the particle physicist.

Etymology of the Suffix, “ologist”

But then, does that mean the second half of the word “mixologist” is in direct tension with its bedfellow? We all know that the common suffix “ologist” has a pretty formal and “sciencey” feel to it, so what gives?

According, once again, to, this suffix is derived from the Greek word, logos, meaning “word, speech, statement, discourse.” It’s that last term that’s particularly relevant to us because the people who drive the discourse on a certain subject become – formally or informally – the ones who control it and share their knowledge with others; The
Academy, if you will.

Logos also has a quasi-mystical variation in tone if you track it through the backwaters of Stoic philosophy and Christian theology, but for our purposes here, logos is the jurisdiction of scholars and people of wisdom.

Taken together, the two linguistic components of the word “mixologist” present us with an interesting tension: mixing different ingredients (as in a cocktail) seems to trigger certain unexpected, racy, or wayward results, but if such an action must be undertaken, perhaps our only hope for a happy outcome is to turn to someone who has managed to tame the lightning through wisdom, craft, and study.

This is the dual nature of the word “mixologist.” To me, it perfectly refers to the volatility and destructive potential of the ingredients that constitute its domain, yet also the hidden, ancient wisdom that the only difference between poison and medicine often resides in the dosage.

Alternatives to the Term “Mixologist”

Now that we’ve looked into the bones of what “mixologist” means, let’s take a quick spin through the musculature and outer appearance of the debate as it applies to our current moment, focusing in especially on the OTHER words we use (or prefer) in place of it.

Going back to that Reddit comment that triggered this whole thang, you may recall that this person claims to have “tended bar for a living.” So we’ve got a bartender who doesn’t like the word “mixologist.”

At this point, we need to face up to the strongest case against the word, which is: it makes bartending sound way fancier than it is most of the time. And by way of illustration, let’s look at the words “bartender” and “barkeep,” what I would estimate are the two most-used synonyms for “mixologist.”

Immediately, one thing becomes glaringly, screamingly clear: bartenders and barkeeps are servants who perform a duty or job that is firmly grounded in a place – that place being the bar. They are servants OF the bar. In the same way a peasant shepherd “keeps” or “tends” a flock, a bartender or barkeep maintains a tavern, public house, or drinking establishment, and those who patronize it. This stands in stark contrast to the word “mixologist,” which focuses on the act of mixing drinks (rather than the place where those drinks are mixed) and the wise person (the individual genius, one might say) who does the mixing. The wise sage behind the bar – someone who might deserve a name like, in Jerry Thomas’s case, “The Professor.” Such a person doesn’t sound like a servant to me.

Perhaps the trouble here is that the term “mixologist” is in direct conflict with cleaning puke out of the bathroom sink for the 2nd time in a shift. It’s incompatible with customers who don’t tip, or (worse) who dine and dash. It’s anathema to programs where most drinks are served from a bottle or a tap. Masters of the mixological arts don’t participate in such common drudgery. It is beneath them.

On the other hand, there’s great value in learning a craft or a trade (and bartending is certainly both of those) and performing it willingly, with a smile, as your profession, and nothing more. There can be great pleasure in clocking in and clocking out without having your trade tied to your identity and your value as a person – in essence, allowing a job to merely be a job.

When you look at things this way, the term “mixologist” does kinda seem a little big for its britches. It gives you the sense that people who use it to describe themselves, are probably too busy preening and fussing over obscure recipes and picayune flourishes to do the actual hospitality work of taking care of people. And at the end of the day, whether you walk into the dingiest dive bar or the most elevated cocktail den, you simply want to feel taken care of.

I think this is the underlying truth that people are trying to articulate when they bash the word “mixologist.”

Why “Mixologist” Should Stay

As I teased at the beginning of the episode, and as the title suggests, I personally am a fan of the term mixologist. I think it should stay, for reasons that affect both the private and public good. Let’s start with the public case.

You just heard me mention the notion that “mixology” as a high art and “hospitality” as a humble trade seem to be somewhat in conflict (that you shouldn’t expect first-rate hospitality from a mixologist, and you should get your hopes up for a well made cocktail from your barkeep). AND YET, when you look at the bars and cocktail programs that are vaunted as the “World’s Best,” you so often hear how good the hospitality is in addition to the drinks. At Tales of the Cocktail a few years ago, I remember attending a talk where Micah Melton, the beverage director over at the Aviary in Chicago, was talking about this concept of invisible hospitality – hospitality so good you hardly even notice it. So clearly, the present discourse has even the fanciest venues – places that could be said to employ mixologists – thinking and talking about hospitality.

Here in DC, there’s a lot of talk about transitioning from a tipped model at bars and restaurants to one that incorporates a flat-rate gratuity and involves fairer, more consistent wages for front-of-house staff. This, of course, provides more stability, but it also eliminates the opportunity for some bartenders at some establishments to make gobs and gobs of cash. There’s legislation actively on ballots to enact this sort of thing, and people are still a little fuzzy about if it’s ultimately going to be a good thing for the service industry.

It just so happens that the programs that are voluntarily exploring this type of non-tipped model are primarily places with high end bar programs, places that care enough about their teams and the quality of the work that they do to protect them with things like solid healthcare, retirement benefits, and paid leave – you know, things most of us take for granted. Personally, I think there’s a correlation between someone who cares enough about spirits and cocktails to call themselves a “mixologist” and the genuine impulse to try and move the entire industry forward. Instead of accepting the system as it stands and finding ways to squeeze every bit of juice out of a tipped payment model, they’re looking to rebuild the system in a way that works better for everyone – in a way that eliminates that “servant” status from the bartending trade and infuses more dignity and respect into the role.

While I know it’s a weird way to look at things, I like “mixologist” precisely because it indicates that someone is invested enough in their work to ask tough questions and get their hands dirty with the details. I think these are the people we need leading positive change in the hospitality industry, and if “mixologist” happens to be a little indicator of that passion and that seriousness, I’m all for it.

My private case for liking the word mixologist isn’t nearly as noble.

I like it because it’s like that one friend in your extended friend group who always makes things interesting. Maybe not always the good kind of interesting – but reliably and sometimes hilariously interesting. The mixologist rarely plays it safe. They’re the ones trying to bottle the lightning; the ones brave enough to ask, “what if we added fernet to this?”; they’ll see your bet and raise you a bottle of Chartreuse; and then they’ll run behind the bar and shake you up a Ramos Gin fizz with a full three inches of foam above the rim of the glass.

Will you still run into the mixologists who maybe should have spent more time learning the basics before painting the town purple with butterfly pea powder or black with activated charcoal? Oh for sure. I can’t browse Instagram or YouTube for 5 minutes without running into one of these jokers.

But in the end, I will always be more interested in people who are brave enough to risk being the failed alchemist or the magician who uses the wrong spell than I am in the folks who are content to play it safe. To me, this is precisely the allure of cocktails and other such tipicular fixings – they push the envelope. And if I can get more envelope pushing by hanging out with mixologists, then that’s where I’ll be.

So next time you hear someone self-identify as a “mixologist,” even if you don’t think they have the skills or the experience to justify such a lofty title, I hope that, like me, you can at least give them a little bit of love for owning both the seriousness and the risk involved in putting the “odds and ends of firewater together.” Maybe that person will serve you a drink that makes you yearn for a glass of wine or a humble pint of Guinness, but personally, I’ll take the risk of promiscuity, fraternization, and confusion over the certainty of a boring drink any day of the week.


Episode 215 – Last Call 2021

Episode 217 – Mindful Mixology with Derek Brown