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What is the Difference Between a Bartender and a Mixologist?

While mixologists and bartenders may look similar, these jobs have very different roles when mixing drinks behind the bar and serving drinks to customers. 

showing the difference between bartender and mixologist

Many people might not know it, but these are actually two different roles. Of course, they both serve drinks, but there are plenty of things that set the two apart from each other. 

Here’s everything you should know about the question: mixologist vs. bartender, what is the difference, and how are they similar?


What Is a Bartender?

A bartender makes and serves drinks to customers, usually from behind the namesake bar in a place that serves alcoholic drinks. Many bartenders serve their customers directly, but they can also send the drinks to customers through waiters and waitresses.

a bartender mixing drinks

On a typical day, a bartender will welcome guests, talk about menu options, pour drinks, make some cocktails, check identification, process payments, clean areas, and handle operations like ordering additional supplies as necessary.

Depending on the location, bartenders may use mechanical equipment to help make drinks faster. Bartenders usually work as long as the bar is open, including evenings, nights, and weekends.

This job is usually one of the more senior positions at a bar, below the owner and bar or restaurant manager but generally above most other employees.


What Is a Mixologist?

A mixologist is someone who focuses on the art and craft of making mixed drinks, especially cocktails. Mixologists tend to work with more ingredients than bartenders and may work at more exclusive or higher-end locations with clients looking for exotic or custom drinks.

mixologist adds ingredients to cocktail through steel sieve

You’re more likely to find a mixologist than a bartender somewhere like a Michelin-starred restaurant. On a typical day, mixologists may study different ingredients, work on creating new recipes, modify existing recipes, and study some history of making drinks.

Mixologists may travel more than bartenders, so flying in to help with special events can also be part of this job. There’s a lot of crossover between bartenders and mixologists, and many positions have elements of both.

The shortest comparison is that mixologists focus more on creating mixed drinks and probably serve fewer of them than regular bartenders. Mixologists may spend up to several minutes on each drink, though most try to cut the creation time down.


Understanding Cocktails

Bartenders and mixologists both tend to make cocktails regularly. Cocktails are mixed alcoholic drinks, meaning they have a minimum of two ingredients, and they come in many sizes and styles.

bartender understanding martini ingredients mixed to cocktail

Typical cocktails may consist of two or more types of alcohol (like the martini, a mix of gin and vermouth), one or more types of alcohol with a base ingredient like fruit juice or tonic water, and additional ingredients like berries or cream.

Factors like the proportions of ingredients, the temperatures of the ingredients and the glass, and modifications from garnishes can significantly affect the final flavor of a cocktail.

An ideal cocktail is repeatable, not a one-time drink. Things that affect the overall popularity of a cocktail include the price of ingredients, how easy it is to prepare for customers, whether it stands out from existing options, and the flavor.

bartender hand making popular negroni cocktails

Outside of popular cocktails like the Old Fashioned, the Negroni, and the Margarita, many companies also make special thematic cocktails for specific events.

For example, a bar might offer a cocktail matching the colors of a local sports team if that team is getting to a championship. Mixologists are usually the ones creating those.

Serving Locations

Bartenders usually work in hotels, restaurants, and dedicated drinking establishments. These can have different names depending on their focus, such as bar, pub, and dive.

Expert barman is making cocktail at night club.

Bartenders usually cater to a larger crowd and may serve beer, wine, rum, or food to their customers. If food is available, it’s usually a chef making it, not the bartender.

Mixologists usually serve drinks in cocktail bars or specialty bars. Some may also work in luxury casinos and similar high-class areas where cocktails are more popular. On other occasions, mixologists serve drinks in places that don’t normally serve alcohol.

Unusual locations can include wedding receptions, media events, private parties, and other times when hosts want to provide a more upscale experience for a limited number of customers.

Bartenders can work almost anywhere, but mixologists tend to focus on urban bars. Places with a higher population density are more likely to have enough traffic to keep an upscale location in business, even if it only has a limited selection of drinks.


Pricing

Drink prices are relatively static for cocktails. A typical bar will go for about 20% pour cost (the price of the ingredients in the drink) and 80% margin (the profit, used for employee salaries, rent, and other expenses).

Depending on the cocktail, this means most restaurants charge between $5 and $15 per drink, although upscale locations can charge considerably more.

Mixologists focus on drinks with this kind of pricing. Keeping the cost of a cocktail down is also part of their job because the lower the price, the more people are willing to buy it.

Bartenders serve a much greater variety of drinks, including many on the lower side of the price range. Beers are often $5 to $7 on location, with significantly more volume than a regular cocktail. However, beers also have much lower alcohol content than most cocktails.


Focuses

Places that serve alcohol usually have a specific focus on the types of drinks they offer. A pub selling $3 beers probably isn’t serving $4000 elaborate cocktails, too.

While many bars can be quite flexible in what they offer, there are realistic limits to this. Bartenders usually work in places that have more popular drinks, such as well-known cocktails, beers, and occasionally some specialty drinks.

Many bartenders also serve a limited menu of their own creations, which crosses into mixology. Mixologists who serve drinks usually do so in areas specifically known for creative or higher-quality drinks.

They may not deal with the same types of customers as bartenders, even though both can serve alcohol to different groups.


Mixologist vs. Bartender Match-Up

Here’s how the mixologist vs. bartender debate goes when we look at specific elements of their jobs.

Barman adding spices powder into a cocktail glass

Serving Customers

Bartenders focus more on serving customers than mixologists do. A capable bartender needs to be able to create drinks from a set menu as quickly as possible and serve drinks accurately to the people ordering them.

two young professional men bartenders pour cocktails into glasses

While mixologists serve drinks on occasion, some of them have much less interaction with customers than bartenders. For example, distilleries may have a mixologist on staff to test different blends of their products and create recipes to send to bars.

Cocktail culture tends to value innovation, so mixologists tend to focus on the ideas behind the drinks more than selling them.

Mixologists are also more likely to work in a cocktail bar that focuses specifically on mixed drinks rather than a general bar that offers basic options like beer.


Drink Making

Bartenders and mixologists both perform a lot of drink making, but in different ways. Bartenders emphasize speed and accuracy for known recipes. A good bartender can serve several alcoholic drinks per minute and may have to handle several dozen customers over an hour.

bartender using cocktail shaker while making a drink in a pub

In a crowded bar, it can be nearly non-stop fulfillment for orders. Mixologists usually focus on creating drinks at a slower pace than bartenders. They may try out new cocktail recipes or create innovative drinks based on individual customer requests.

Mixologists who serve customers directly usually handle fewer per hour and may work in a quieter, more upscale setting than a traditional bar.

A mixologist may mix drinks on the spot to create something new, while a bartender usually sticks to a set menu and only modifies drinks when they feel like it.


Administrative Responsibilities

Bartenders usually have some level of administrative responsibilities in their bar. While the public image focuses on their ability to make alcoholic drinks, bartenders may manage several other staff members, ensure regulatory compliance, complete paperwork, and handle many other tasks for their bar.

barman pouring drink from measuring cup into a cocktail

Mixologists have more variation. Those who work in bars usually have more of a mid-level role, serving drinks but letting someone else handle most administrative tasks.

Those who work outside of bars are rarely in administrative positions, though that can come back into play in some consulting roles. Both roles perform at least some paperwork.

For example, a mixologist who comes up with interesting mixed cocktails will usually write down the ingredients and the process, then refine it later.


Skills

Bartenders require familiarity with many drink recipes, an understanding of classic cocktails, experience mixing cocktails and other drinks, and good management skills. Bartenders also need outstanding communication skills, the ability to keep things organized, and preferably as much training as possible.

Bartender guy working prepare cocktail skills

Good sense and flexibility are valuable. Mixologists tend to have a culinary approach, understanding the science of how ingredients react and how to create a good menu.

Many mixologists develop culinary techniques to modify ingredients, learn how to source ingredients and supplies, organize existing ingredients, and present results to customers or companies.

Both jobs have social aspects, so interpersonal skills are a must. Making extraordinary cocktails is key to both roles, though bartenders tend to make significantly fewer of them than a master mixologist.


Requirements

Bartenders require relevant training and some experience working in bars. Many attend classes first, then work in various bar jobs to get familiar with them. Familiarity with a customer service environment, administrative tasks, computer literacy, and communication skills are vital to this job.

Barman mixes cocktail show with colorful alcoholic cocktails at bar counter

Mixologists usually need a lot of experience bartending to get a job with this title. Mixologists often take special courses, use more complex or advanced tools, and work in presentation roles to present drinks.

A reputation for creating high-quality, original drinks is also part of this role, as people who hire mixologists tend to value past success in the role. Essentially, mixologists are bartenders who move past just serving drinks and more into the creative side of the industry.

They have fundamentally similar backgrounds, but mixologists often have more experience creating original drinks and additional culinary training.


Salaries

According to Indeed, bartenders have a starting salary of around $15.70 per hour, although this can rise above $20/hour with sufficient experience and the right location.

Bartenders at better locations can also take home about $150 in tips on average each night, which functionally doubles their income.

Mixologists are usually salaried employees rather than hourly, and Indeed reports that most make slightly over $29,000 for this position.

It’s also a much rarer job than bartending, as there simply isn’t as much demand for making creative and original cocktails compared to mixing and serving popular drinks.

Mixologists can augment their income by publishing books, giving presentations, or otherwise promoting themselves. Notable mixologists can earn well over $50,000 per year.

Reputation is particularly important in this role, and some mixologists will work in specific events instead of having a salary or permanent workplace.


Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some common questions that people have about mixology and bartending.

Can you be both a bartender and mixologist?

Yes. These roles aren’t just similar, many people perform elements of both at different times. For example, bartenders often dabble in mixology as a hobby. The primary difference in these jobs is the main focus, not what they’re doing.

Can you get a degree in bartending or mixology?

Sort of. Bartending doesn’t have a dedicated degree, though you can get certification from qualified schools. Mixology does have a degree, usually available as an associate’s degree from community college.

Have there been any famous bartenders or mixologists?

Yes. Dale DeGroff is a particularly well-known mixologist, while Jerry Thomas published the original book on cocktails.


Final Thoughts Served

As you can see, the mixologist vs. bartender question is more about nuance than real differences between them. Both roles create and serve drinks, but bartenders tend to interact with customers more while mixologists focus on creating drinks.

What do you think about these two professions? People have widely different opinions about these jobs, or even whether there’s a difference between them, and we’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment and let us know!

Written by Paul Kushner

I have always had a deep interest in the restaurant and bar industry. My restaurant experience began in 1997 at the age of 14 as a bus boy. By the time I turned 17 I was serving tables, and by 19 I was bartending/bar managing 6-7 nights a week.

In 2012, after a decade and a half of learning all facets of the industry, I opened my first restaurant/bar. In 2015, a second location followed, the latter being featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

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