Are Mixologists the New Celebrity Chefs?

Are Mixologists the New Celebrity Chefs

Surprisingly, ‘mixologist’ actually made its entry in the dictionary some 150 years ago, at a time when cocktails didn’t even exist.

The word may not new in the English vocabulary, but it is only recently that ‘mixologists’ have created a buzz in the drinking world.

Love it or hate it, aside from exposing consumers to new flavors and unusual libations, mixologists, have elevated the drinking culture as a whole and made it incredibly trendier in the process.

Supported by the success foodie movement, the mixology trend is a result of consumers increased appeal for sophisticated flavors, presentations, and quality. More than just alcohol and juices, mixologists use atypical ingredients, including spices, herbs, flowers, essential oils, and even kitchen leftovers ( in their quest for originality.

By crafting drinks that are fun, colorful, but always complex and balanced in taste, mixologists have brought in new customers to the bars and allowed connoisseurs to rediscover old classics.

The fact that the public would soon grow more curious about the artists than their creations is no wonder.

And it reminds, yet again, of how celebrity chefs rose to fame.

With a flurry of mixology awards and specialized press, mixologists were already celebrities in their world, but their recent mediatization took them to a whole new level.

TV shows like Spike’s Bar Rescue or The Food Network’s On the Rocks, or even ABC’s On the Rocks, now cancelled, introduced mixologists (and their crazy concoctions) to a large, mainstream audience very quickly.

Extraverted and sociable, imaginative and incredibly talented, star mixologists had this mysterious aura that added to their appeal and increased the public’s fascination for these talented ‘blendsetters’.

Perhaps more so than with executive or pastry chefs, with whom customers have little to no chance to connect with, the audience has taken a serious liking to celebrity mixologists: they tend to humanize them more than any other food professional.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable mixologist today is Nightclub & Bar Magazine’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, Russell Davis. Star of Bar Rescue, he is Davis is a highly creative talent who has brought new discoveries to the bar tending world.

In 2012, he introduced a new barrel aging technique known as “The Manhattan Project” which received rave reviews after its launch at the San Francisco Exploratorium’s annual event, Science of the Cocktail.

Another blend prodigy is Los Angeles SLS Hotel’s Bar Centro’s, Rob Floyd. Eccentric, elaborate, often explosive but always artful, his approach to mixology reminisces of the way molecular gastronomy chefs approach food. Using chemistry and techniques such as aeration, atomizing, fractional distillation and combustion, this mad scientist-mixologist is pushing the limits of cocktail as we know it.

While perfectly balanced and tasteful, Floyd’s creations are more than just drinks – they are an experience. His Smoke on the Water, a berrylicious and surprisingly strong cocktail made from atomized scotch seems like an enflamed Martian volcano about to burst or, better yet, a smoking Cotton-Candy.

His Ultimate Gin and Tonic is an upscale, refreshing twist on a British classic that makes the perfect summer drink. Complete with fresh garden flowers and exotic herbs floating atop your top-shelf gin and designer tonic of choice, it is served with lemon, lime wheels, and clarified ice. A jaw-dropping cocktail experience is Floyd’s Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha, a delicate boozy white slushie that resembles the purest of clouds – all made tableside.

At the forefront of this mad-science-meets-mixology movement is Charles Joly, former Head Bartender at Chicago’s The Aviary and winner of last year’s Diageo World Class competition in London. One of the first to use carefully-sourced produce and herbs and to focus on innovation, Joly’s drinks have created a wave in the international drinking world.

Highlights including the Jungle Bird, a layered cocktail that includes two rums and spherified rum balls that burst in your mouth, similar to bubble tea, or In The Rocks, a bourbon cocktail served in an oversized ice ball and that requires a slingshot to crack open then glass.

This comes at a price, though: drinks at Bar Centro or The Aviary cost a little under $20 apiece, sparking criticism that mixology adds nothing more than pretention and at best, good presentation to the cocktail culture.

Mixologists are indeed a controversial breed in the bar tending world, and their sudden rise to fame often stirs radical feelings among their peers. Numerous bartenders refuse the ‘mixologist’ label, arguing that the word creates a divide between ‘first-class’ bartenders, implicitly making non-mixologists second-class citizens. To them, celebrity mixologists are increasing this divide even further.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Above all, mixologists are passionate professionals who want to share their knowledge and elevate the standards of their industry. Russell Davis, for instance, serves as an advisory board member for Drink Careers 101, an organization that aims to educate college students on the career opportunities in this industry. Rob Floyd hosts cocktail classes once a month at the SLS.

The next generation of celebrity mixologists, however, doesn’t call itself that. The Aviary’s new Beverage Director Micah Melton prefers ‘Ice Chef’. A former computer engineer-turned-cocktail-mastermind-and-new-Grant-Achatz-protégé, Melton’s cutting-edge, state-of-the-art cocktails bring a fresh perspective to mixology.

His Loaded to the Gunwalls reminisces of the spice trade with cinnamon and Batavia Arrack. Served in a ship in a bottle with scented mace, a candle is placed underneath the bottle and then lit, allowing smoke aromas to develop.

True, The Aviary is an experience like no other: it is the very first time that a fine dining restaurant has put drinks on equal footing as food. And with over 30 drinks à la carte and a 7-drink long tasting menu, Melton is continuing Joly’s work by setting the bar (no pun intended) higher and higher.

No matter the label, what counts is that mixologists are so genuinely and passionately invested in their craft, and, more than anything, that they endeavor to create an ever more powerful emotional connection between drink and drink lovers. Nothing wrong with that.

Eva du Monteil is a culinary trained food and wine critic living in NYC. When she is not exploring the country in search for the next hidden gem, she enjoys eating, drinking and cooking in the company of her friends, chefs and fine purveyors of epicurean experiences. While she loves NYC, she believes some of the most exciting food and drink scenes at the moment include Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, Miami, and Philadelphia.

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