The Story of the American Mixologist

By Derek Brown
brown mar25 billiebar.jpeg

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Billie's Bar, 56th Street and First Avenue, Manhattan. (December 08, 1936).



Chefs have it easy. Their title conveys a sense of rank and is easily bandied about without someone getting all up in arms about the origin, meaning, and intention. When you call someone a bartender, sure, it conveys the stuff we want, but there's also a missing dimension. Not all bartenders make their own bitters, research antiquated recipes, or use mushroom stock in drinks (not that I recommend it). So some bartenders want to spiff up their title.

The term "mixologist" made its debut in 1856 in Knickerbocker Magazine:

Who ever heard of a man's coming to bed in the dark and calling the barkeeper a mixologist of tipicular fixing unless he had gray eyes, razor handled nose, short hair and a coon-colored vest.

In 1870, it appears with a more serious tone in "Westward by Rail," according to Richard Hopwood Thorton in his 1912 American Glossary:

The keeper of the White Pine Saloon at Elko Nov informs his patrons that, "The most delicate fancy drinks are compounded by skilful mixologists in a style that captivates the public and makes them happy."

I like the latter usage -- and perhaps the term would be more useful if it didn't draw a red squiggly line under the word in our mental processor. Some think it's a nonsense word, others think it sounds pretentious. There's a sense that it's like saying "hair stylist" instead of "barber," or "custodial engineer" instead of "janitor."

Other difficult terms include "bar chef" and "mixicologist." The bar chef Albert Trummer is purported to have been the first to use the term "bar chef," and it makes sense -- especially if he was looking to identify with the kitchen. In an interview with Gothamist Albert explains, "A bar chef is a little different. A bar chef is someone who works closely with the kitchen -- not someone who puts three raspberries in a cocktail."

OK, "mixicologist" is seldom used but does come from the title of a 1895 bar book by C.H. Lawlor, who referred to his position behind the stick as "chief bartender" despite the book's title. That's damn close to chef.

Yet I don't feel comfortable with "bar chef." For some reason that makes me feel that we're playing second fiddle to the kitchen, so much so that we need to take on their terminology. The bar is something distinct, it's not derivative of any other restaurant function in my mind. In a way, it encapsulates them all.

That means we're stuck with the same old term, bartender. It seems every other one is mired in controversy. There are also those patrons who simply bang on the table, wave money, or shout, "Dude." They bypass the whole stupid argument.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/03/the-story-of-the-american-mixologist/4859/