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Behind the Bar: What’s in a Name?

By February 2, 2022Connecticut, Top News

Bartender and guest columnist Khalid Williams. Photo by Winter Caplanson.

By Khalid Williams

A happy professional crafting a beverage is a…

I am old school. I’m an early adopter. I am a classic gentleman and an enlightened human identifying as a cis-male. Everything that I do, read, watch and wear aims to reflect these traits effortlessly (I literally just wrote a description of a hopeless and hapless hipster. Please do judge.) I don’t do any of these things to be rebellious or counter-cultural. I do them because they are who I am, or at least that’s what the algorithm wants me to think. So, when people ask me about my profession, I have to take a step back and really consider what term best describes one who aims to skillfully mix drinks with attention to history and a streak of innovation. What am I?

The argument of “bartender” or “mixologist” can get ugly fast. I have heard world-class professionals stress that “I’m just a bartender,” which is the response I have defaulted to in recent history, admittedly to avoid being considered another annoying drink slinger of meme-worthy douchiness. I’ve used it to show humility, but I fear it’s caused me to unconsciously minimize the importance of what my industry as a whole provides.

There are enough people shitting on those who tend bar, and they usually are doing so while sucking down a well-balanced cocktail that we just made. There’s also too much rockstar status being given to drink makers who don’t really reciprocate with love and kindness to their guests.

A mixologist is generally considered to be a bartender who specializes in crafting cocktails. However, the term has come under some criticism in recent years for being vague and undefined. Some argue that it is simply a marketing term used to make bars and the cocktails sound more high-end and sophisticated.

Others say that its history dates back more than a century and goes to the essence of thoughtful drink making. As with most controversies, both factions are absolutely right. Or maybe they’re just not wrong, like Walter isn’t wrong (White Russian, anyone?)

Jerry Thomas wrote the first surviving drinks manual. His “Bar-Tenders Guide” is considered the first guide on making cocktails, and every cocktail book made since references it. See that title? Bar-tender. He even had a fancy little hyphen in there. Welp, though not in the title, many people credit “the professor” for coining the term mixologist. I’ve not found his actual use of it, and I’m about to rage at Amazon for selling me a non-searchable Kindle version of his book. (If ever there existed a first-world problem…)

Internet rabbit holes aside, we do know for a fact that the word appeared in numerous publications in the 19th Century, once being defined as a “different and odd occupation.” There ain’t nothing new under the sun, except the latest post in an argument being had right now on some thread about how annoying the term is.

Dale DeGroff, the father of the modern cocktail, decided to fashion himself as a “master mixologist” to be more marketable in the 1980s. He used it to get paid (and quite possibly, laid) more. Since then, it has been used to denote the knowledgeable staff at sophisticated bar programs with exclusively fresh ingredients and world-class drinks. It also was used in 2018 by a well-known owner of multiple downtown Hartford bars before he instructed his beverage director to be sure to offer at least 20 different fruity martinis at his soon to open “speakeasy.” True story. I was there. Part of me is still there, as my soul melted out of my body and onto the sticky floor of his Bro-dacious institution.

The moral of this little story is that both “bartender” and “mixologist” have historical precedent, with the latter being a bit more subject to interpretation. One of our industry beacons ended the argument for me. Jim Meehan (PDT), succinctly concluded that, “A bartender serves guests. A mixologist serves drinks.” I believe that the best of us will always try to do both with care, kindness and grace.

Khalid Williams is a bar manager, spirits brand representative and program consultant specializing in marketing, engagement and data. His passion is for exploring the “why” behind consumer decisions. He loves Old-world wine, New-world rum and Connecticut beer. Follow him on Instagram @thebarrelage.

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