What makes a great mixologist? The art of premium cocktails

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Interesting ingredients cocktail

If I’m going out for a few drinks with friends, I will invariably gravitate towards an establishment with a resident mixologist. Fantastic wine menus and a good rotation of craft beers are pleasant, but nothing quite captures my attention like the dexterity and flair of a cocktail connoisseur showcasing their skills from behind the bar. As I sip on a Cranberry Collins, the flavour fusions, and gorgeous garnishes the mixologist conjures up leave me nothing short of entranced.

Jerry Thomas, a bartender from New York, was credited with inventing mixology in the 1860s, after his extravagant serving style turned heads among visitors at bars he worked in across the U.S. He later penned the seminal book on cocktail-making, Bar-Tender’s Guide, and created his signature cocktail, the Blue Blazer. This beverage was created by lighting whiskey afire and passing it back and forth between two glasses to create an arc of flame. Thomas initiated mixology as a craft – and a theatrical one at that. Today, mixology is firmly established as an art – one that, in essence, has three components – the aesthetic, the flavoursome, and the atmospheric. Any talented contemporary mixologist will create beverages that look beautiful and taste delicious, all the while captivating guests with conversation, humour and, as Jerry Thomas did, a few tricks.

However, not all cocktail menus come complete with a gifted mixologist to serve their bounty. There are few things as disappointing as visiting a relatively high-end establishment only to have your cocktail served in a lazy half-pint glass, or the spirits added without measure to create an undistinctive punch of misbalanced flavours. Luckily, this is becoming a thing of the past, as more hospitality professionals become properly trained in this honourable art form.

Of course, it is not just the professional mixologist who is to be admired. As Randy Hanson from the drinks blog Summit Sips comments:

“While we are typically referring to bartenders when we use the term ‘mixologist’, the label actually applies more broadly to include non-professionals and home cocktail enthusiasts, too. Basically, anyone who aspires to mix great cocktails is a mixologist, and everyone has the potential to be great.”

Still, few would argue that there are bartenders who know how to make cocktails and there are mixologists. But what really distinguishes these categories, and what makes a great mixologist? We spoke to several cocktail experts to find out.

Basic bar skills

Bartender

Before we get stuck into the key ingredients of a great mixologist, we must make an obligatory foray into the realms of basic bar training. It will seem obvious, yet the fundamental skills of hospitality must be in place. After all, it’s no use being able to create stunning, exhibition-worthy garnishes if it takes you ten minutes to do so, neglecting other customers. Like most others, I enjoy a little chatter at the bar, but I don’t want to be missing out on conversation with friends while I wait in an excessive queue to get my round of drinks.

Randy comments on the importance of bartending basics:

“Industry professionals who work in bars and restaurants do need to have additional experience and abilities that can't be overlooked. For example, having the social skills to work face-to-face with customers, knowing how to deliver great customer service while responsibly maintaining a safe environment that minimizes potential liabilities and risks associated with over-consumption of alcohol, building a profitable cocktail menu, working with cash and point-of-sale technology -these are all crucial for sustaining a successful business and every bartender needs these skills.”

Service is central

Serving a cocktail

“Maya Angelou said, ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’” This is how Natalie Bovis of premium drinks blog The Liquid Muse begins describing her philosophy on what makes a great bartender, and it is, she says, “exactly what hospitality is about.” Natalie explains:

“While a trained mixologist has studied the way a chef does - learned how spirits are made, the cultural connections to what and how we drink, and the history behind classic cocktails - if that person forgets that drinks are second to service, they are not at the top of their field… However, the humility and graciousness with which those drinks are served is what truly makes a world-class bar experience unforgettable.” 

Of course, in any hospitality position, service skills are essential. However, in the role of mixologist this is even more pronounced. Cocktail bartenders range from the classicist – creating impressive beverages with subtle style – to ‘flair bartenders’, who craft cocktails in a markedly theatrical manner, full of spinning bottles, fire and liquid-throwing, whether it is a Blue Blazer or an Old Fashioned, it needs an element of execution. Whichever camp a mixologist occupies, there is no doubt that their art is often the centre of attention at the bar, meaning that a certain level of charisma is required. A great mixologist should be able to engage their customers, explaining their methods and ingredients, and essentially entertaining those on the other side of the bar.

Technique

Mixology technique

No doubt, one of the most important elements in any cocktail experience, is the quality of the beverage offering itself. As Randy points out, “Nothing is more important for achieving a premium cocktail experience than technique. Even the best ingredients and the most creative recipes will not save a cocktail that is poorly executed.” Perhaps this goes without saying, but the more experienced a mixologist is in the tricks of the trade, the more inventive their drinks can be.

From the European Bartender School, that teaches students why some drinks are shaken, stirred or rolled and which methods are suitable for different drinks, to courses with the Mixology Group, which offers bespoke training solutions, most professionals will have attended an esteemed institution to learn the ropes. However, Randy offers the following advice to aspiring mixologists who are interested in the core skills required to develop their talents:

Shaking

Shaking is possibly the most iconic part of making a cocktail, so it is a technique you want to get right. Randy recommends, “If you are going to shake a cocktail, add plenty of ice and really shake it hard! Too little ice and it will quickly water down, and a lazy shake won't chill the contents. As Harry Craddock (Savoy Cocktail Book) reportedly said, you want to ‘wake it up, not rock it to sleep’.”

Stirring

“That said,” Randy notes, “you should know when to stir (transparent ingredients such as all-spirit cocktails) vs. shake (recipes that include cloudy ingredients like citrus juice). Nobody wants a Manhattan with a layer of foam on the surface because it was shaken instead of stirred, but a Daiquiri can be shaken because tiny air bubbles won't affect the look of an already cloudy cocktail.” Don’t fall into the pseudo-mixologist trap of shaking everything merely for effect, learn about the best way to prepare each cocktail and respect your ingredients.

Measuring ingredients

When Randy advises to “measure your ingredients”, it might seem like a moot point. However, it is important to remember that “all drinks, even well-known recipes that are made using incorrect proportions will suffer. Sours should keep acid and sugar in balance, so once measured, taste-testing will ensure you got it right or allow you to adjust before straining into a chilled glass.” If I wanted a drink that tasted overwhelmingly of vodka, I would order a straight. Cocktails are all about balance, leading the drinker on a journey through different flavours that excite and satisfy the palate in perfect proportion.

Garnishes

“Don't skip bitters or garnish or entertain other shortcuts because you don't think they matter,” Randy instructs. “If it is in the recipe - especially the classics - and you won't or can't use a suitable substitute, perhaps you should be making something else.” Throwing a wedge of the rim of a mojito simply won’t do. Talented mixologists will truly make a garnish sing: burning orange rind to extract the fragrant oils, sourcing unusual fruits and complementary flavours and much more.

 

Randy concludes, “These are just a few examples of basic techniques that will go a long way toward making a premium cocktail. For a comprehensive overview we recommend Jeffery Morgenthaler's Bar Book which focuses on technique rather than being just a collection of recipes.”

Tools of the trade

Mixology equipment

Although, as they say, it is only too easy for the poor craftsman to blame his tools, a few pieces of specialist equipment are necessary in order to make stand-out cocktails. If you are considering taking up mixology, Randy recommends these capsule items to allow you to bring out the best in your ingredients and showcase your skills at their best:

“A Boston shaker will allow you to make almost any cocktail properly. The glass and tin is your most versatile shaker option. Combined, you can shake cocktails, and using a bar spoon in the glass alone will allow you to stir drinks easily. A Hawthorne strainer is needed for both situations to hold back ice when pouring the drink into a cocktail glass.

With mixing covered, you also need to be able to measure ingredients properly. A good set of jiggers will work, as will a small measuring cup.” Because of the subtle difference, the slightest increase in ingredient quantities can make to the taste of the cocktail, Randy explains that it may be necessary to measure fractions of an ounce. For these situations, the eye’s judgement will not suffice.

To make your garnishes sing – be it citrus peel or olives – a multi-tasking tool is required. Randy explains, “A large piece of wood, like a French rolling pin cut in half, makes a great muddler. Many commercial muddlers are too small, so get something long enough to reach into your shaker glass and tin without hitting your knuckles. With a good muddler, you can press orange peels, express the essence of mint and crushed fruit.”

Great ingredients

Interesting ingredients cocktail

Natalie claims that “it shouldn’t be necessary to point out that fresh ingredients, quality spirits and a well thought out cocktail menu are what distinguishes a respected bar from the competitor down the road.” However self-evident this point may be, quality ingredients can be the distinguishing element between a good cocktail offering and a truly stand-out menu that will get guests talking.

This is, of course, true. “You can make a decent cocktail with the right technique even if you can't afford top-shelf ingredients,” Randy concedes, “but what you put into the shaker will definitely affect what goes into the glass.” Consumers’ perceptions are deeply influenced by the quality they perceive in a drink, and rightly so, because a better garnish usually indicates a better beverage.

Discard that carton of orange juice, step away from the soda tap. Randy declares that “When it comes to craft cocktails, there is no greater sin than using a commercial sour mix instead of fresh citrus. Lemons and limes are not hard to find these days, and anyone who thinks a good Margarita includes a ‘mix’ is gravely mistaken. Fresh-squeezed juice is easily the best way to ‘up your game’ when it comes to improving the ingredients you use to make great drinks.”

“You should also get used to making a handful of ‘homemade’ items like simple syrup, real pomegranate grenadine, orgeat and whatever else your favourite recipes require. We suggest expanding your repertoire one recipe at a time until you feel comfortable maintaining the demands of the most common cocktails you make or to ensure cocktails on a menu can be made with consistent results.

“Finally, choose spirits and liqueurs that work together to support your cocktails. You don't always need to buy the most expensive brands, but having some variety will allow you to experiment and gives your guests choice.”

Truly premium cocktails must feature the finest fruits, liqueurs, spirits and juices. Preferably, source ingredients that are locally-sourced – even foraged, if you’re adding herbs such as mind - and syrups that are home-made where possible. Today, the flavour fusions expected by discerning drinkers are far more inventive than they once were. Gin-drinkers, for example, might expect to see cacao nibs, hibiscus flowers, elderflower tonics and even aniseed to feature on menus. Do your research, check that the flavours work, and innovate.

 

So, whether you are looking to hire a mixologist to enhance your bar’s offerings, or are considering venturing into this dynamic occupation yourself, these features, as shared by some of the web’s top cocktails bloggers, will help you to define what makes a spectacular mixologist. Tell us your top requirements from a cocktail bartender on Twitter by using the hashtag ‘#WhatMakesaMixologist’ and tagging us @DivineEatingOut!