“Mixologist” can be a divisive term. To some, it reads as too conceptual, the kind of indulgent nomenclature better suited to car commercials scored with melancholy strains of Yoyo Ma. But we like it—not least because it seems to acknowledge the fullness of the craft. Where “bartender” sounds familiar, even friendly, “mixologist” carries with it the heft of science, the meticulousness of craftsmanship, that almost nerdy curiosity with which so many modern professionals pursue their work. Mixologists are the perfectionists, the archivists, the futurists of the cocktail scene. And we love them for it.
But even as we shout “mixologist” from the rooftops, what we’ve tasted this year signifies not a shift, but an evolution, of the term. The mixologist-as-craftsman is still alive and well, but that expertise is now so intuitive that the new emphasis is on hospitality. Mixologists are comfortably bartenders—again.
Consider the New Orleans cocktail scene. In our several trips to the Big Easy, we tasted with scores of mixologists, the next generation in that city’s long, proud legacy of drink-slinging. And whether we were sipping revived cobbler cocktails with 2012 ICC presenters Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal of Cure or an innovative room temperature Rebennack from Chris Hannah at Arnaud’s French 75, the emphasis was service. As New Orleans gracefully straddles tradition and innovation, one thing was clear: perfection is now expected. In cocktail culture, hospitality is the new black.
That sense of solidarity extends beyond the bartender/customer relationship. In Atlanta, camaraderie exists between bartenders. We tasted a spectrum of southern flavors, from Scuppernong shrubs to Rising Star Mixologist Miles Macquarrie’s Jaws-inspired Blood Water. But what ties them together is constant conversation: Atlanta’s mixologists share ideas freely. For some bartenders, that might seem rash—hold onto ideas, make a profit, right? But in ATL, it all works out beautifully, to the tune of entirely new citywide cocktail categories like refreshingly low-alcohol Suppressor cocktails—proving the power of communal mixology is apparently as potent as the spirits themselves.
Bartender/mixos aren’t just innovating new cocktail types, they’re also creating new products. In fact, we’re wondering if the new bartender’s American dream has more to do with getting a product on the shelves than opening their own bar (though we’re betting that one’s still up there). Not that bartenders are building retirement plans on product development. Tom Richter of The Beagle stumbled into his cinchona-heavy Tomr’s Tonic because he wanted something worthy of the slew of exquisite craft gins. And 2012 ICC presenters Kelley Slagle and Lynnette Marrero might not be capitalizing on drinking vinegars (yet, anyway) but they are working in that spectrum of products to advance their own repertoires.
Even in New York, with its perpetual—precarious?—balance of dive bars, cocktail dens, speakeasies, and rooftop lounges, it’s hospitality that unites. Dave Arnold might be playing with fire (literally) behind the gizmo-heavy bar of Booker and Dax, but the tools are there for one purpose: perfection of the drink and expedience of service—all benefiting the customer. Maybe because of its concentration of bar types, New York can easily straddle the craft-hospitality divide, all while experimenting with untested ideas: wine cocktails might not be new to the drinks list, but neither are they prevalent. But that doesn’t stop Matt Leatherman of Wallse from creating a wine cocktail-only menu at the next door Upholstery Store (a passionately self-described “neighborhood joint,” where hospitality is paramount).
Even abroad, we encountered mature cocktail scenes. As Hidetsugu Ueno of Bar High Five told us, Tokyo has “more than 100 years [of] history” in cocktail culture, as evidenced by the classically masculine, restrained Hunter Cocktail on Ueno’s menu.
Don’t get us wrong. Hospitality isn’t new to cocktails—a big heart and a flask are where cocktail culture was born. But the profession is so increasingly sophisticated—and respected—that modern mixologists can actually divide their attention between continually advancing their craft and curating the guest experience. And we’ll delve into all of that—the traditions, innovations, and experiential component of cocktail culture at this year’s StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress: Origins and Frontiers. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, be sure to purchase them today: we have cocktail icons like Gaz Regan (who'll go ultra-bartender, telling tales about some of his favorite bar pros), industry leaders like Audrey Saunders and Jim Meehan, and ultra-talented up-and-comers like 2011 Houston Rising Star Bobby Heugel, all gathering to advance the craft of the cocktail.
Meanwhile, keep your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers coming. We'll be traveling to coastal New England, San Francisco, and the Carolinas in the upcoming months, tasting our way through these cities bars and watering holes. And follow us on Twitter and Facebook, for real-time updates on the food and drink that inspires us every day.