When the modern cocktail renaissance really started to blossom about a decade ago, many drinkers were first introduced to the word "mixologist," a somewhat confusing term that could have meant a lot of things. Hearing it for the first time, I assumed it meant a hip-hop DJ in a white lab coat wreckin' the wheels of steel. Most understand it to mean a bartender resembling Bill the Butcher. Or a 1970s-era Steve Prefontaine, who uses fresh ingredients and precise scientific technology to make drinks of a quality few living mortals have experienced.
Because of the term's current trendiness, many are surprised to learn that it dates back to the nineteenth century, though maybe that shouldn't be such a shock. Today's bartenders have revived forgotten recipes and standards of Gilded Age bar maestros like Jerry 'The Professor' Thomas. Cocktail guides printed in the 1890s regularly call bartenders mixologists, and the term surfaces often in the newspaper archives of that era. The earliest I discovered came from 1860, in the Raftsman's Journal from Clearfield, Pennsylvania. The paper featured an essay about a man in a hotel who mistakenly wandered into the room of another hotel guest late at night. Addressing the startled occupant, the first man explained that he had come from the bar downstairs, and that the "mixologist of tipulars" downstairs had directed him to the room.
I thought "mixologist of tipulars" was pretty good until I came across a copy of The Montana Post from 1866, which upped the ante by using the expression "mixologists of fluid excitements." After that, most papers simplified the term down to just "mixologist." The Daily Los Angeles Herald from 1879 went so far as to list it "among the different and odd occupations" that city residents were submitting to the government register. Alongside the man who listed himself as a 'mixologist,' other residents listed occupations that included 'smoker,' 'general buzzer,' and 'roustabout.'
Beginning in the 1880s, the term is most frequently refers to bartenders at high-end establishments. Some of the places had spectacular names like "The Blaine Invincible Club," and none seemed like dives. A copy of the Fort Worth Daily Gazette from 1883 announced the opening of a bar called Merchant's Exchange, which was "kept on the French style, and you can get there the very best the market affords." It was a place where patrons could "find the finest liquors, served over the bar in any style, by experient [sic] mixologist, to suit the taste of the most fastidious." Tombstone, Arizona also had quite a few mixologists, but the "boss mixologist in town" was apparently a man named Charlie Mauk, who served "the finest beef spiced tea, and the choicest wines, liquors, and cigars."
Despite its long lineage, the term today gets a lot of mixed reactions. Many think the term "mixologist" a little too dressed-up and pretentious, like calling a baker a "breadologist" or a butcher a "meatstronaut." Some believe that "bartender" emphasizes someone taking care of the guests at his or her bar, whereas "mixologist" is more sterile, emphasizing only the creation of the drink itself (and perhaps a show.) I'm not sure what Jerry Thomas thought of the term, but perhaps the fact that he called his book a "bartender's guide" is an indication, although the book was admittedly published on the early side of the term's common usage.
Not every bartender is against the term, though. Some feel like it sets them apart by designating them as a member of some kind of higher order. They're like drinking's Swiss Guard, sworn to high standards and a sacred dedication to their craft. If they're at the bar, you won't be getting anything mixed with an energy drink poured from a can featuring a scary picture of a dragon.
If some bartenders today feel like it's important to band together in a boozified version of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword and call themselves mixologists instead of bartenders, they're continuing a long legacy. One Washington, DC, newspaper from 1900 featured a story about the 'Mixologist Club', a group of barmen advocating a higher set of principles for the profession. The mixologists lambasted the idea of the "antiquated bartender...with his unkempt hair and dingy linen" and had organized their club "to protect the better grade of workmen from the shiftless and unreliable, and to stimulate a broader sense of fraternity." (A little bit of puffery then reared its mustachioed head when the piece went on to describe the bartenders of the Mixologist Club as "a handsome, industrious and painstaking set.")
Of course, many bartenders today couldn't care less about the term. These folks are too busy making drinks, and content to leave the terminology to buzzy lifestyle journalists trying to put creative bartending wizardry into context for readers. It was journalists, really, who brought about the term's revival, thanks to famed author/bartender Dale DeGroff, who serves as a kind of Pliny the Elder to the modern cocktail movement. Back in the 1980s, when DeGroff was running New York's Rainbow Room, he resurrected 'mixologist' because, he said in a recent interview, he "wanted notoriety from the press." He got the attention, and at the same time achieved a rather savvy marketing ploy for the modern cocktail revolution he would help launch. At the end of the day, DeGroff helped make trips to the bar a lot more enjoyable, no matter what you call the people making the drinks.