Yesterday a Bartender — Today a Mixologist.
However subtle, there’s a difference.
It may be subtle, but there’s a difference.
With the foodie explosion over the past 15 or 20 years, the long-respected profession of bartender has become extinct. To be fair, not entirely…they’ve been replaced by “mixologists.”
If you believe what you read on the internet, a mixologist “studies and helps to evolve the field of bartending, creating innovative cocktails…”
Somehow being a bartender is now some sort of lower grade trade. Not quite as dignified as the mixologist…or, perhaps not as refined or cultured.
Hogwash, I say.
When I tended bar, I had only one rule, to make people feel comfortable. The booze helps, but people can get that anywhere. What they come back for are the personality and comfort. As long as a Mr. Bostons was around, I could make any drink. And if I didn’t know how to make it I just made it red and floated Myers rum on it (it never failed).
What’s the difference between a mixologist and a bartender?
A few years ago, I was invited to some BBQ at some guys’ place in Brooklyn. I didn’t know the guy; all I knew is that his parent bought him the brownstone (the whole thing) and that he worked as some sort of food and beverage guy for some restaurant conglomerate in NYC.
I was living paycheck to paycheck but since I had worked in food service before…so I figured, at the very least, I’d be among like-minded people.
We were all asked to bring something to the BBQ so channeling my humble middle-class mid-western roots, I made a simple pasta salad to bring along (in Tupperware of course). Along the way, I stopped to pick up a six-pack of Rolling Rock.
From my chair, two integral parts of any BBQ.
Even after ten years in NYC, I was still a little naive about class.
Once I got to his brownstone, in a trendy part of Brooklyn, his girlfriend met me at the door. She gave me a puzzled look as she took the beer and pasta salad but thanked me anyway.
She led me to the backyard and, like some sort of millennial herald, introduced me around.
It being the middle of July and hot, I was in unwashed, weathered shorts, an old Jack Daniels t-shirt and beyond reparable Chuck Taylor’s. Pretty much normal weekend garb for me. While I owned linen, I didn’t think to wear it. This was just a BBQ…or so I thought. Shrugging my shoulders, I decided to make the best of it. Which began by drinking three beers in very quick succession.
As I circulated, I quickly realized these were hardcore foodies who worked with host…presumably until their father called them back to Greenwich to work at the family hedge fund. I suddenly realized six beers may not be enough.
Since I was one of three men there, I gravitated to the one other guy I saw sitting at a side table rolling his own cigarette. Obviously. I rolled my eyes, meandered over and pulled an American Spirit out and lit it up. This guy looked up at me with disdain. Nonetheless, we nodded at each other.
Once he lit up his self-rolled ciggie, he was all too quick to tell me that he met the host at Cornell. Obviously.
I nodded, feigning interest but hiding my shame that I had just finished my bachelor’s. As is the progression of these things, I asked what he did. With no sense of irony, he said he was a “writer.”
As a playwright myself, my interest was piqued so I asked where he had published. He said he hadn’t yet and that he was working on a novel.
Of course he was working on a novel!
I had stepped into Dante’s lost circle of hell.
I began to sense an amount of pretension that would normally have me breaking out in hives, but for some reason, not this time. Sitting there, listening to this dude prattle on and on, I knew this BBQ was going to take three things.
I would have to channel my old personae of “Bartender Keith”, the affable and chatty guy. In my natural environment, I’m not very chatty.
I would need a fair amount of alcohol to access the long-repressed “Bartender Keith.”
I would need a considerable amount of restraint.
As anyone reading this knows, numbers two and three are not known to work in tandem.
So after the awkward small talk with the “novelist”, the host emerged with a silver tray (sterling I presumed) of some type of bronchial phlegm colored aperitif that shook like Jell-O as he moved. Walking around the backyard, ensuring it would “cleanse the palate” before dinner, his foodie sycophants snatched it off the tray. When he made it my way, I pointed to my Rolling Rock and said: “I’m good, thanks.”
Everyone politely tossed back their phlegm and carried on chatting as the host went back into his kitchen.
It was right around this time that I learned the host was a bona fide mixologist. When it came to Brooklyn douchebaggery, this guy had scored the hattrick.
His parents bought him an entire brownstone.
He went to Cornell. In and of itself, not douchey, but coupled with everything…it can’t be ignored.
He was a mixologist. A genuine mixologist!
Shortly after all of this nonsense, I became hyper-aware and largely irritated, that I left my Xanax at home.
Eventually, we all made our way to the picnic table, which was surprisingly bougie given the setting.
On one end was the mixologist and his “writer” friend and at the other was me. And between us was about eight women. By NYC standards, that would qualify as social gender parity.
Being about four beers in at this point I decided to try and make the best of an awkward situation. I awoke the long-dormant “Bartender Keith”. I learned the girl across from me was recruited by the FBI at law school (Harvard, naturally) and the girl to my left was getting her MA at the Sorbonne in France.
For perspective, I was a cube-dwelling, white-collar worker at NBC, who had just finished my BA at The New School…about 12 years late…and was a playwright whose plays had only been produced WAY off-off-Broadway. I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed, but couldn’t really relate.
How to make friends and influence others.
Somewhere around the duck salad, which happened to coincide with my last beer, I heard the name Courtney Love come from the other end of the table. She was in the news for something. The “writer” was speaking about her “talent”.
Considering myself a pseudo scholar of 1990’s music, I could not let this go unchallenged:
“Oh, I think you may be wrongly interpreting the definition of the word talent.” It took great restraint to not incorporate “dear boy” into my retort.
My Ivy League-educated “writer” acquaintance said that I was mistaken:
“That’s unfair. She wrote some of the best songs of that decade.”
I looked around as the host and his orgy of foodie sycophants nodded in agreement.
Pinching my lips and tilting my head, I felt my Irish shoot up:
“Exactly which songs of hers are great? The ones that Billy Corgan wrote? The ones that Kurt Cobain wrote? Or the ones Trent Reznor wrote? Any success she had is directly tied to one of those artists…and savvy marketing. Period.”
As I pulled from my Rolling Rock, the Ivy League “writer” stated:
“Well, she must have contributed something to those songs and her albums for them to be so successful.”
Setting my beer down on the bougie picnic table, my Irish was in full bloom:
“I doubt it. Courtney Love is a no-talent c*nt.”
You could have heard a pin drop on the grass after I said that.
After what felt like an eternity, one of the foodies said: “Well, that’s a little harsh.”
Another said: “You could’ve maybe used a different word.”
I replied, “Maybe, but some people are c*nts and she’s one of ‘em.”
“Bartender Keith” had been dormant too long it would seem.
After a couple of beats, the women (for real) began clearing the table. Since I was now the pariah of the group, I walked off to the side of the yard to smoke. What else could I do?
Perhaps as some sort of male bonding, the “writer” and mixologist host made their way over to chat with me. But something told me that wasn’t the reason.
The “writer” had heard that I wrote plays and asked what I wrote about. I’ve never known how to answer that question so I just answered “relationships.” Pulling out an old bartending skill, I deflected and bounced it over to them.
Since I already knew they both went to Cornell, I asked the mixologist if he had studied Hotel and Restaurant Management there. Not only is Cornell an Ivy League school but it also has one of the most prestigious hotel and restaurant programs in the world.
They both chortled. The mixologist replied “Uhh, no. We made fun of those people. They weren’t very highly regarded on campus.”
I said, “And yet here you are doing that type of work. Funny the way life works, huh?”
He replied. “It’s a little different, I’m a mixologist.”
“Ah, yes. I see. For a big restaurant conglomerate.”
And again, you could hear a pin drop on the grass. Redemption was not in the cards for me.
For some reason, they stuck around. Maybe I was like some sort of middle-class zoo animal they could examine up close?
Fortunately, my bladder began throbbing and I excused myself as the conversation shifted to Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni.
I returned to find the mixologist host drawing names to see who would go down to his wine cellar(!) to choose the after-dinner wine. This was somehow a privilege. One of his cute young foodie acolytes was the “winner”.
Considering it would be rude to simply run away screaming swear words, I lit another cigarette and decided to stay for one glass of the after-dinner wine.
As I was drinking that last glass of wine, I surveyed the perimeter to find the closest point of egress. Once found, I threw back the wine and headed straight for it, stopping only briefly to thank the Ivy League mixologist and his girlfriend.
As is the nature of these things, there was an empty comment about getting together at a later date. Realizing it would never come to pass, I grunted some sort of innocuous acknowledgment and left.
I walked to the subway realizing that the restaurant business had changed. If it was populated with people like that, I would rather be a pharmaceutical test subject.
Will have a drink menu is present.
Will have a drink menu populated with drinks and ingredients you can’t pronounce.
Will take longer to make than it does to drink it.
Will not have a drink menu.
Will silently nod when you arrive or maybe say “Hey, how’s it going?”
Will not try to cajole you into some sort of small-batch/regional IPA when you only want a Bud Lite.
Anyone can learn to make a drink.
Not everyone has a personality.
So, what’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?
A mixologist makes drinks.
A bartender makes you feel at home.
I was a bartender.
I was never a mixologist.