What’s with this title?
By Francine Cohen

InsideF&B OpEd Header

This column was born out of journalistic frustration that reached a boiling point. This was after one too many press releases hit the old inbox touting holiday/special event themed cocktail recipes created by, as the publicist sending the release noted, “Master Mixologist insert name here created these signature cocktails for our brand.”

Master Mixologist? Huh? Is that “Master” title anything like the “Master Plumber” title appropriated by the guy in the tax prep company’s commercial who confuses the husband in his kitchen because the two guys first met a week before when the now “Master” plumber was doing the husband’s taxes? Well, not if you ask a Master Plumber. They actually have to have years of apprenticeship and training to call themselves that.

So, back to wetting your pipes, instead of clearing them; we want to know, what the heck does that “Master Mixologist” title mean and who conferred it? Aside from the USBG – which we’ll come back to in a moment – its not as if there are numerous accredited graduate degree programs at universities, the traditional US standard bearers for educational degrees with their alphabet soup shorthand (e.g. BA, BS, MA, PhD, etc.), conferring a Master Mixologist title.

The wine world has such an accepted body; the Court of Master Sommeliers which, through its reputedly rigororous training, names a limited number of skilled wine professionals as “Master Sommelier.”

But where oh where does one go to study and attain this title when they’ve spent their career behind the bar? The USBG offers spirits testing that upon successful completion confers an earned title of “Master.” Livio Lauro, President of the USBG’s MA program, notes, “The program launched in 2009 and we currently have 118 spirits professionals (level 1), 7 advanced bartenders (level 2) and will start our first round of USBG master mixologists in the second half of 2013. This exam will be open to our current 7 advanced bartenders plus any new advanced bartenders that may graduate between now and then.”

Needless to say, none of their names have ever been referenced in these press releases we’ve received. So it leads to the question of why bartenders are being touted as “Master Mixologists” and whether we allow the perpetrators of this title (I.e. PR teams who present it and the media who accept and repeat it) to continue fooling their readers with it.

Let’s take a stand for the sanctity of bartending and marketing and professionalism and demand that successfully fulfilling the multiple challenges of this role warrants that the bartender title be just as revered professionally as the title chef has become and doctor and lawyer always has been.

Take this as a challenge to demand respect for the career you’ve chosen and eschew nonsensical and not entirely substantiated titles made up by someone who doesn’t design bars or drinks and stand on their feet for hours listening to other people’s crummy day and thinks that being a “bartender” isn’t enough. It is. No embellishment necessary. And if you’re on board with that the public will be too.

And then the only thing you’ll need to master is reaching those goals you’ve set for yourself. Without a lot of frivolous smoke and mirrors announcing your existence.

Our journalism teachers always demanded we wade through the smoke by asking the questions : “who, what, where and why?” When the “Master Mixologist, a title of verifiable truth or made up hogwash?” question hit Facebook it garnered numerous heartfelt, passionate, thoughtful, and even funny responses.

Here’s the discussion in real time*:

Camper English – I hate that it’s the new default title. And given that it’s their job title, I feel like I’m supposed to repeat it when writing, but often I just knock it down to ‘mixologist.’ 1/16 1:48 PM

TJ Lynch – As I understand it, all you have to do is: 1. Call yourself a Master Mixologist. 2. See #1 1/16 1:50 PM

Charles Hardwick – Nothing really. Purely subjective nonsense and blather. Loathe the term. 1/16 1:50 PM

Curtis Cheney – I could not agree more. 1/16 1:52 PM

Curtis Cheney – Master distiller is another one. 1/16 1:52 PM

Francine Cohen – @Camper English – I’ve gotten to the point where I see it and take a deep breath and just ignore it. Unless of course I know the person to whom they are annointing with the title and then most often I just break into a fit of giggles. Seriously, I don’t think that this term is one suitable for pitching to trade. Perhaps the public/consumer audience relishes it. 1/16 1:53 PM

Camper English – Moreover a more accurate term is usual Beverage Director or Bar Manager or Consultant 1/16 1:59 PM

Sean Ludford – You stumped me Francine – trust a bartender and no one else. Master mixologists, bar chefs and other equally silly monikers serve only to identify narcissists who have little regard for those who made their 15 minutes possible. 1/16 2:03 PM

Joe Seals – It’s all about the marketing. 1/16 2:07 PM

Francine Cohen – Or, simply, “bartender.” 1/16 2:08 PM

Maria Pribble – I am a Master Marketing Ninja. I don’t care what anyone says about it. 1/16 2:18 PM

Camper English – Why have I been wasting my time with you then? Email me when you reach guru status. 1/16 2:19 PM

Jacob Briars – I believe the PR/media nexus is responsible. Dale DeGroff was the first to call himself a master mixologist, got the requisite media attention, and the media started looking for ‘master mixologists and bartenders and venue operators filled the vacuum, as you’d expect them to. 1/16 2:21

Jeffrey Lindenmuth – If you can go to Staples and print yourself a business card with the title, you now qualify. Kind of like “sommelier.” 1/16 2:22 PM

Joe Seals – I like Camper’s subtle suggestion. We create a new system a la the brigade of a kitchen. We start with glass washer, then bartender’s assistant, then bartender and then…apprentice mixologist, mixologist, master mixologist, alcohol guru, and finally master alcohol guru. Or is there something higher? 1/16 2:24 PM

Jeffrey Lindenmuth – In the same vein, much as I truly respect the “BAR Certified” guys, I am mortified every time I read how it is “in the spirit of the Master of Wine or Master Sommelier titles.” Um, the BAR course is like 5 days. 1/16 2:28 PM

Gareth Wainwright – I am all for the term bartender. Marketing does try to make it sexier than that as bartender doesn’t make the average Joe perk up. To the candy floss martini public, it just isn’t enough to draw the crowds…Unfortunate but true. 1/16 2:35 PM

Moira Sedgwick – I’m master of disguise and prefer this to be highly publicized. Everywhere. 1/16 2:45 PM

Camper English – I am the Ice King of the Internet. 1/16 2:56 PM

Angus Winchester – Um. Yes. But let’s not forget that the USBG does have a qualification of Master Mixologist…Only 4 people as I understand it have passed that. And re Master Distiller I think you will find it merely means that they have had media training! But I agree the term Master Mixologist is laughable at present. 1/16 3:15 PM

Angus Winchester – Alex…Not convinced that a bartender/mixologist needs a degree in organic chemistry to be a Master Mixologist. By that dint don’t you need physics and biology too? Oh and I would love to take your test. 1/16 3:25 PM

Joe Seals – Did someone call me average 1/16 3:35 PM

Tonia Guffey – I’m just a mediocre mixologist press releases. 1/16 4:35 PM

Damon Dyer – It appears that we must amend TJ Lynch’s criteria to include the following: #1 Study organic chemistry. #2 Call yourself a Master Mixologist. #3 See #1. 1/16 4:41 PM

Tonia Guffey – A master of karate and friendship for everyoneologist 1/16 4:45 PM

Angus Winchester – Oh..and on this same tip what is a Master Alchemist? I would tag Alex Ott in this but I see the friend request I sent him over 6 months ago was not accepted (or denied). It would be cruel to say if you want a giggle go see his bio but damn…1/17 3:58

Jason Reed Baron – I feel so careless in my dispensation of chemical compounds, I hope to swim with dolphins in the Atlas mountains someday. 1/17 4:15 AM

Sam Meyer – This test sounds hilarious. My money’s on Angus. 1/18 4:16 AM

Tonia Guffey – Alex didn’t respond? Is there a 19th season of Sex and the City we didn’t know about? (burn) 1/18 6:04 AM

Francine Cohen – Follow up question to clarify a bit. Especially after @Alex Ott took the time to post an answer. Here’s what I want to know – if the Court of Master Sommeliers has their well respected and rigorous program that confers the title “Master Sommelier” on people, what august body is conferring the Master Mixologist title on people? Who are these folks who dreamed up the criteria that Alex laid out as the guidelines for genuinely carrying that title and how can one study for that? Honestly folks, I think it’s a lot of marketing hype and probably should be stopped. I like Camper English 1/24 6:22 PM

Francine Cohen – ‘s method of just skipping the “master” part whenever it’s presented to him. 1/14 6:22 PM

Tonia Guffey – The term mixologist is gross and thrown around way too frequently. Often by people that couldn’t bartend in a working bar to save their lives. 2/14 6:44 PM

Dave O’Brien – They need to be BAR Ready, and then ready to take the piss out of themselves at every bar they go to from then on- because everyone else will. 1/24 7:08 PM

Angus Winchester – As mentioned previously tho..www.usbg.org/accreditation.php 1/24 7:09 PM

Jeffrey Lindenmuth – Is it too late for Dale to trademark Master Mixologist so I never see it elsewhere again. Nobody deserves it more. 1/24 7:59

Bill Norris – I believe it has Master of Douche as a prerequisite. 1/14 8:22 PM

Jonathan Forester www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/dining/16bartender.html? _r+0 1/24 8:30 PM

Jonathan Forester www.artofdrink.com/blog/jumping-the-shark/ 1/24 8:30 PM

Todd Appel – The nature of the Beast 1/24 8:35 PM

Todd Appel – And quite often…bartender quackery. 1/24 8:35 PM

Sam Meyer – In a store in Philadelphia, I ran across a book called “Dr. Cocktail.” Kind of amazed that it wasn’t by Ted Haigh… 1/24 8:59 PM

Jonathan Forester – Sam, spoke to Ted about that just a few weeks ago. He is on it, or his mouthpiece is… 1/24 9:05 PM

Tobin Ellis – Bartender is the beginning and the end of it all. Wanting a different title that you believe makes you sound superior to others is nothing but ego. I spend more time designing bars than I do behind them these days and am hoping I will still be afforded the title ‘bartender.” Because I’m proud to be one. For life. 1/24 11:52 PM

Tonia Guffey – It’s an honor to be able to be called a bartender, so few deserve it. So have fun splashing around with tinctures and infusions and what not…and um doing chemistry…I’ll be hearing about somebody’s s**t day and fixing them up a glass of whiskey to make things better. 1/25 4:42 AM
Tonia Guffey – Amen Tobin. 1/25 4:43 AM

Chris Hannah – w/Tobin Ellis Friday at 5:19 PM

Jonathan Forester – First we need to look at the term “Master.” This goes back over a thousand years to the days of Craftsmen organizing Guilds and apprentice training. A Master of the guild was granted this status by his peers within the guild. It was the ultimate accolade awarded after years of study perfecting one’s craft. First one would be an apprentice, studying under a Master. Then, if the apprentice could prove their worth, they were awarded Journeyman status. Not all apprentices would be granted this and many would be dismissed for not having the knowledge and skills. A Journeyman could then go and study from various Masters for several years, learning new techniques and skills. The best of the best would eventually be declared a Master. This was done through the Guild. One cannot award themselves Master. It cannot be granted by media, or any other than their peers, other Masters of their Craft. Friday 6:21 AM

Jonathan Forester – Second, we need to look at the term “Mixologist.” This term goes back hundreds of years as well. Basically it means the art or skill of preparing mixed drinks. Not serving them, but preparing them, creating them. Bartender means someone who works in a bar, making and serving drinks. One may be a Mixologist, but not a Bartender, and vice versa; or be both. There are many people in the cocktail and spirits field who are bartenders. There are also those who may have been bartenders in the past, but are no longer, or never bartended at all. These can be known as Mixologists, if they create new cocktail recipes. Not just creating recipes, but good ones that are accepted by the trade and public. Mixologists can be professional , doing it for pay, and amateur, doing it for fun. Friday 9:36 AM

Jonathan Forester – The term Mixologist, like all terms, is fluid, because language is fluid. Sadly, the term has lately been misused by the media, removing relevancy and definition. Even more so when Mixologist has the term Master slapped in front. The media should not acclaim the term Master to a Mixologist. Neither should a Bartender or Mixologist do this to themselves. In doing so it robs the term of any meaning or strength. As Angus Winchester says, “let’s not forget that the USBG (US Bartenders Guild) does have a qualification of Maxter Mixologist…Only 4 people as I understand it have passed that. And re Master Distiller I think you will find it merely means they have had media trianing! But I agree the term Master Mixologist is laughable at present.” I feel that uness a Craftsmen’s Guild acknolwedges and awards one Master, you are not; and the term should not be used. Of course the USBG doesn’t use the term Mixologist, but Bartender, because the term Mixologist had fallen out of favor decades, even a century, ago. Friday at 9:54 AM

Jonathan Forester – I feel as strongly about this for Master Distiller as I do for Master Mixologist. I know of several people who have never produced a legal spirit calling themselves Master Distiller; and the media granting the term Master to distillers who have little or no experience, or who produce mediocre or even poor, spirits. Since there is no Distillers Guild yet in the US, the closest that comes is the informal trade organization, The American Distilling Institute, the term Master Distiller can’t be officially granted. But, if one has won multiple awards in VALID competitions (one with judges who have a high level of expertise), I can see that the term Master could be used, in certain cases. This is because I do not consider most spirits compeititons to be valid, because of the judges and their lack of experience and credentials. At this time I think it is the years in the business, combined with the amount of sales of spirits one has created, that has to be used to accord the term Master Distiller. Friday 10:03 AM

Tonia Guffey – Master intoxicologist Friday 2:52 PM

Maksym Pazuniak – 50% global liquor company marketing idiocy, 30% media people who need validation for writing about cocktails, 15% tone-def hospitality PR people and 5% douchebag bartenders. Surprised by all the reesponses, who cares? Friday at 3:06 PM

Sam Meyer – I aspire to be a master blogger one day. Friday at 3:56 PM

Angus Winchester vegasseven.com/feature/2013/01/24/livio-lauro Saturday at 12:22 PM

AX Velez – I wrote this as part of my essay for Industrial Psychology 450 in ’08 and got 100%; way to start the semester. Mixology is the study of the relationship between culture and drinks. It is often thought erroneously that the term Mixology refers exclusively to the art of Bartending, but this is only a small part of this discipline; it cannot always be said that a Bartender is also a Mixologist. Mixology studies various cultural components with liquid and alcohol as its central axis. Thus it is related to the Fine Arts and Social Sciences, and even to the Natural Sciences in terms of the digestive system of the human body. A Mixologist’s principal acitivities involve discovering, tasting, experiencing, researching, understanding and writing about Drinks, techniques and the professional aspect of this discipline. Mixology is therefore an interdisciplinary activity. Good observation will reveal that around the cocktails, there exist dance, dramatic arts, piainting, sculpture, literature, architecure, and music; in other words, the Fine Arts. But it also involves physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, geology, agronomy, and also anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. The application of scientific knowledge to bartending and mixology has become known as molecular mixology…booom. Saturday at 1:07 PM

*some respondents requested that their posts be excluded from this story

**And, as a sidebar to the sidebar, Kyle Branch took the time to send his lengthy thoughts via private message which, with his permission, are worth repeating:

** Bartenders practice to the degree they do. It is each individual bartenders responsibility, if one has a genuine long-term passion for the work, to learn and train themselves or under the tutelage as much as they can over a long duration of time while working behind the bar. There is no legitimate/collegiate degree course with credt to get involved in. We have short term (weeks) unaccredited bar schools in whatever forms are currently out there today. That’s about it. Our field of work is missing of scholarly merit. But that’s no surprise when you consider that becoming a bar professional to whatever level that we can, is a combination form of labo work, preparations and customer service. Therefore, the practice, experience and knowledge-gaining has to be done hands-on in the actual on-the-job training environment behind a live, operational bar setting for shifts on end.

Learning from any books or bar courses is of course part of that information-gahtering process, early on preferably, and continuing whenever possible. The beverage product stocked behind the bar is our education, mostly self-taught over a period of years. True higher authorities don’t exist, not really, although recent bar programs created do assist in educating what they teach in their curriculum. There is no hill, mountain or king. We all teach each other. All the perceived (and little-known) movers and shakers do not get equal recognition for their contributions. Imagine how many of them have fallen through the cracks, discouraged by the desolation of no one together and no archive house for all. It’s more spread like a mist of info, and we catch what we can. The craving to achieve the top end is because the need for the bottom end has never been sufficiently covered at all. Most of all it is a toot your own horn kind of thing. It’s the only way to get people and places to listen. Many in the industry knowck that MM moniker now, some of them being the same ones that lightly or heavily embraced it then, for however long it worked for the need. That’s okay, we’re allowed to shed! But lookout, we have “World Class” to deal with now. It doesn’t really end, it merely morphs. It’s one of those things you’re interested in when you have 10 years bar experience and came into the work during its progressive period, but when you have 20 and 30 years , it slowly loses its importance.

Getting to have master (using that word gently) knowledge of the ingredients and flavors with everything we pour, along with expanded research and study into the further organic breakdowns, help us more define what all a product contains, by which we can ascertain what is a better, healthier product vs. a not-so-good quality bottled or canned ersion, whether it be a spirit, a mixer, a bitters, etc. however, with the art of mixing being paid more serious attention to in the last decade, it is a step in the right direction. Knowing deeper interaction and safety of ingredients blended together from a standpoint of chemistry and physiology becomes a consideration for continued exploration, but has never been a requirement. It’s more like whoever chooses to do so on their own time, because we certainly don’t get paid extra for it~! I did something of this nature almost 10 years ago when I put a series piece together titled “From the Earth to the Bar” and another called “Natural Altered States,” both exploration works based from the book “The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” It was simply, as one bartender, a direction of interest for me, and I put many hours of my own time into it. The MM term served its purpose for a decade of attemped exposure in a position lacking of at the time when it came onto the scene.

Management, industry, spirits brands, mags and PR woke up and allowed themselves to take notice of the increased culinary practices when it was happening, and became the runaway train it is, or was. Had to call it something catchy they could use for media attraction. Now brands are listening to us with our feedback of tastings and co-creating flavor profiles for future products. It’s all part of opening up to what was once closed. In the end, it’s all sharpened our palates to enjoy the work more. Regardless of it all, I love being a bartender, and always will.