Ask the Bartender: A bartender by any other name....
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can often find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall and here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions.
I just returned from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the biggest cocktail party/bartending/spirits convention in the world. While looking through the stacks of business cards I collected, I found the following lofty titles for bartenders: Mixologist, Master Mixologist, Master Bartender (says who?), Cocktail Chef, Liquid Chef, Craft Cocktail Specialist, Cocktailian, Cocktail Artist...
All just fancier names for one job. Bartender.
My father -- who, in fact, is a bartender -- used to say, "A title and a quarter will get you a pack of bubblegum." Gum is a bit more expensive now, but you get the point...
Let's talk about the most-often-used title, Mixologist. Created in the mid-1800s as a humorous reference to bartenders, it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek then -- but now is embraced as a "serious" title by many (too serious) bartenders world-wide. As evidenced by the many fancy titles that PWPDs (people who pour drinks) around the world use, it seems they want to distinguish themselves from the everyday bartender. Why?
Granted, I've been referred to as a mixologist many times. People, mostly writers, want to find a different way to refer to me so that I don't get lumped in with all the other types of bartenders -- nightclub drink slingers, dive and & neighborhood barkeeps, flair bartenders, etc. The problem is, I don't want to be separated from them. I have respect for what they all do, and have been there as well. Great club bartenders (watch Ben Vencil at Tavern Downtown) can efficiently serve hundreds of people in an hour and thousands per shift. A good dive or neighborhood bartender can remember drinks, take care of their guests and hold a conversation about anything. Flair bartenders entertain a crowd. I am proud to be lumped in with these groups.
Obviously, there are differences amongst bartenders. Some of us work with the tools we are given at our jobs, and do the best with what we have. Some of us are lucky enough to work where we can practice craft bartending. Those of us who are so blessed have worked hard to take our art form back to where it was before the dark ages of bartending (the 70s through the 90s). During these dark times, aka the age of convenience, bars started replacing fresh juices with powdered mixes, high-end spirits with cheaper quality hooch, real sugar in bottled sodas with high fructose corn syrup sodas on a gun, etc. This was also an age where every drink was shaken (even those that should have been stirred), because speed was the key. The term "Martini" became a blanket for everything served in a V-shaped glass.
There is now a huge, bright shining light at the end of the tunnel. We are slowly returning to where we began, when bartending was a well-respected profession. In the past ten years or so, our craft has grown in leaps and bounds. There are now many more resources for bartender education available than ever before.
So those of us who have worked hard to restore respect to our craft now need to embrace the term "bartender," rather than try to separate ourselves from the herd. We need to be part of the community. Rather than belittling our brethren who are not as learned or fortunate, we should spread the gospel: Hospitality (always first), fresh ingredients, quality spirits, proper technique.
Call yourself what you want, but be a bartender first.
Have a question for Sean Kenyon? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org -- or just post it below.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.