I was a bartender NOT a mixologist. by Keith R. Higgons

You may be asking yourself what is the difference. They both make drinks in a food and/or beverage serving establishment. As the foodie explosion has grown over the past ten years there has been an equally large explosion of people who want to call themselves “mixologists”. If you believe the hype on the Internet, a mixologist is someone who “studies and helps evolve the field of bartending, creating innovative cocktails…”

Somehow, being a bartender has become some sort of lower grade trade. Not quite as dignified as the mixologist…or, perhaps not as refined or cultured.

When I tended bar, I had only one rule, to make people feel comfortable. That was it. I didn’t give a shit about how to make a drink, we had a Mr. Bostons behind the bar and if all else failed, you ran by the bartender credo “make it red and float Myers”. The fact is you can teach any monkey how to make a drink but you can’t teach them how to have a personality or how to make others feel comfortable. It’s not about believing that the customer is always right; it’s about making the customer feel right…at home.

A few years ago, I was invited to some BBQ at some guys place in Brooklyn. I didn’t know the guy; all I knew is that he worked as some sort of Food and Beverage guy for BRGuest Hospitality. They’re a huge restaurant conglomeration that own different types of restaurants all around the country, from high end seafood fare (Blue Water Grill) to Mexican (Dos Caminos) to burger joints and everything in between. Having worked in food service before, I figured at the very least, I’d be among like minded people.

Channeling my humble middle class mid-western roots, I made a simple pasta salad to bring along. Along the way, I stopped to pick up a six pack of Rolling Rock. I mean, those would be two things I would want at a BBQ.

Once there, his girlfriend met me at the door, took the beer and pasta salad and led me to the backyard. As she introduced me around, I immediately knew I was out of my element. The majority of the people there worked with my host at BRGuest and were hard core foodies. Hard. Core. Foodies. I sighed and  realized six beers may not be enough.

As I was one of three men there, I gravitated to the one other man I saw sitting. A black guy who was a little too eager to tell me he went to Cornell. When I asked what he did, with no sense of irony, he said he was a “writer.” I asked where he had published and was told he hadn’t and that he was working on a novel. Of COURSE he was. Jesus, what had I gotten myself into?

Being surrounded by that many foodies and that much pretension would normally cause me to break out in hives, but for some reason, it didn’t this time. Sitting there, listening to this man prattle on and on, I knew this BBQ was going to take three things. One, I would have to channel my old personae of “Bartender Keith”, the affable and chatty guy (if you know me now, you would not know that person ever existed). Two, I would need a fair amount of alcohol to reach the “Bartender Keith” state and three, a considerable amount of restraint.

Numbers two and three are not known to work very well in tandem.

Shortly after the awkward small talk had given way to the slightly more lubricated chatter, the host came out with a tray of some sort of cocktail that was the color and consistency of phlegm, assuring us it would “cleanse the palate”. I pointed to my Rolling Rock bottle and nodded I was fine.

It was right around this time that I learned three things. One, this guys parents bought him the Brownstone. Two, he went to Cornell and three, he was a mixologist. A genuine mixologist.

This guy scored the hattrick of douchebaggery.

After everyone downed their shot of phlegm, we began to secure our positions around the picnic table, waiting for the onslaught of food to begin. On one end was the mixologist and his “writer” friend and at the other was me. Each person who had prepared something was responsible for bringing it out and announcing what it was. Suffice it to say I was not about to stand up and announce my exceptionally average pasta salad (and for the record, it was good…just not foodie good).

Deciding to try and make the best of an awkward situation, I channeled “Bartender Keith” and began talking to the people around me. I learned the FBI girl across from me was recruited at law school and the girl to my left was getting her MA in France as a fine artist and that her parents had been the team behind some famous album covers.

The BBQ progressed decently enough until somewhere around the duck salad, which happened to coincide with my last beer. From the other end of the table I had begun to hear a discussion about the “talent” of Courtney Love. The “writer” was making the claim that she was a talented musician. Considering myself a pseudo scholar of 1990’s music, this sort of statement could not go unchallenged.

He countered that I was wrong and that she had written some great songs. In fact,”some of the best songs of that decade”. My host and mixologist and many of the foodies agreed.

From my side of the table I inquired “Exactly which songs of hers are great? The ones that Billy Corgan wrote? Or no, maybe it was the songs that Kurt Cobain wrote? If not, then definitely, it had to be the ones that Trent Reznor wrote. Come on, any success she had is directly tied to one of those artists.”

As I took the final pull from my Rolling Rock, the Ivy League “writer” stated, “Well, she must have contributed something to those songs and albums for them to be so successful.” Setting my beer down, I let emotions (and the beer) get the better of “Bartender Keith” and emphatically stated “I sincerely doubt it. Courtney Love is a no talent c*nt. The sooner you realize that the sooner you can see how little talent she truly has.”

How to make friends and influence others with Keith R. Higgons.

Rule #1, don’t use the C word around a table full of women, ever…and certainly not in reference to another woman.

You could have heard a pin drop on the grass after I said that.

One of the foodies said “Well, that’s a little harsh.”

Another said, “Could have maybe used a different word.”

I replied, “Maybe, but some people are worthy of it and she is one of ’em. Besides, it’s true.” “Bartender Keith” had left the BBQ.

Fortunately, my declaration about Courtney Love coincided with the end of the meal and people began to gather plates and clear the picnic table. Not surprisingly, I had become the pariah of the group. I can admit that perhaps my choice of words was a little tough, but let’s be honest…she is.

With the clearing in full swing, I got up to stand off to the side and smoke a cigarette. Just then the Ivy League “writer” and the mixologist host made their way to chat with me.

The “writer” had heard that I wrote plays and asked what I wrote about (never ask someone what they write about, any answer we give makes us sound stupid). I said I didn’t know and that I mostly wrote way off Broadway, one-act plays. He then asked what the last play I had written was about. I said that it was about a relationship. But I didn’t want to talk about myself, let alone my plays, so I tried to seek redemption by asking about them.

Since I already knew they both went to Cornell, I asked the mixologist if he had studied Hotel and Restaurant Management there. Not only is Cornell an Ivy League school but it also has one of the first and most prestigious hotel and restaurant programs in the world. They both chortled, and the mixologist replied “Uhh, no. We made fun of those people. They weren’t very highly regarded on campus.”

I said “And yet here you are doing that type of work. Funny the way life works, huh?”

He replied. “It’s a little different, I’m a mixologist.”

“Yea, for a big restaurant conglomerate.”

Redemption was not to be had for me.

Somehow the conversation shifted to cinema and the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and the Ivy League educated “writer” and mixologist began to have a spirited discussion between themselves about his films; a discussion in which I couldn’t participate because, outside of name recognition, I didn’t know his work.

Fortunately, my bladder started throbbing and I excused myself.

I came back just in time for the mixologist host to be drawing names to see who would go down to his wine cellar to choose the after dinner wine (yea, that happened). Some girl foodie he worked with was the “winner”.

Deciding to stay for one glass of the after dinner wine took all of the energy I had. As I was drinking that last glass I scanned the perimeter to find the closest point of egress. Once found, I threw back the wine and headed straight for it, stopping only briefly to thank the Ivy League mixologist and his girlfriend.

As is the nature of these exits, there was empty comment about getting together at a later date. Realizing it would never come to pass, I grunted some sort of innocuous acknowledgement and left.

I realized on that day, that if the restaurant business was full of people like that, I had no place being in it.

So, what is the difference between a bartender and a mixologist? Technically speaking, if you go to a bar and the person behind the bar starts trying to suggest a drink for you or hands you a drink menu that contains drinks with ridiculously long names that will take longer to make then to drink, you’re in the presence of a mixologist.

If you go to a bar and there is no drink menu and the person behind the bar asks you how you are doing or simply nods a pleasant acknowledgement, then you’re in the presence of a bartender.

So, not technically speaking what’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?

A mixologist makes drinks.
A bartender makes you feel at home.