Mixology (The ‘M’ Word)

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.26.14
In 2010, David Alan was mad as hell, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. The American-Statesman had just published a story that distilled craft cocktails to “a pricey mouthful reminiscent of watered-down Jaegermeister.” So he did what people used to do: He wrote a letter. And the letter did what things like this do now: It went viral.
It went viral because it was virulent, a tirade not just against the daily paper for its myopic dismissal of his profession, but against pop culture by association for lionizing chefs and leaving bartenders in the shadows. He called it a “hackishly written slam piece more appropriate for a high schooler’s blog.” I was in the newsroom when the letter broke on the website of Alan’s drink consulting and training business, the Tipsy Texan. Let me tell you: We were pissed.
(ABOVE: David Alan's "Tipsy Texan" cocktail book shows how far the Austin bar scene has evolved even since Alan was tending the bar at Annies downtown in 2009 in the photo at right. AT TOP: Drink.Well’s Jessica Sanders behind the bar.)
Nonetheless, the Statesman soon designated a staffer to cover cocktails. And we started watching our copy for casual cruelties and other JaegerBombs. David Alan — this cordial, congenial guy — made a difference by being neither cordial nor congenial. He’s more copacetic about it now, ready to move past what he likens to a display of adolescent frustration. He’s written a well-received book, “Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State.” And at last month's Austin Food & Wine Festival, he guided half a dozen sessions dedicated to the cocktail arts.
Among the biggest cocktail seminars at the festival was called "To Mix or to Mingle?” Alan moderated a discussion with Austin bartenders Jessica Sanders (Drink.Well), Justin Elliott (Qui) and Nate Wales (La Condesa). To give you an idea what they talked about, you should know that Alan intended to call the panel “The M Word” before the PR people got ahold of it.
“M” for mixologist or mainstream or even movement. “I remember someone commenting ... basically mocking us for calling it a movement: ‘No, Civil Rights was a movement,’ ” Alan said. “But to us, it felt like a movement. The fact that it’s become so mainstream means that something moved.”
And like most movements, we have to agree on acceptable terminology. So what do we call the people behind the bar now? Alan said he respects the word “mixology” because it implies a thoughtful, academic approach to the craft, “But I don’t know any bartender in 2014 who prefers to be called a mixologist.”
Notice that he said “bartender”? To Alan, hospitality drives the debate. “A person can be a really good mixologist but a horrible bartender,” he said “They make good drinks. But they’re too dogmatic, they’re not very efficient, they clearly have no problem being rude to a customer.”
The “Mix or Mingle” panel approached the craft from three angles: Sanders runs a neighborhood bar with national credibility at Drink.Well; at La Condesa, Wales oversees a large restaurant bar operation with several locations; at Qui, Elliott’s in charge of a small bar that bears the weight of big expectations.
(ABOVE, clockwise from left: The wood-cased bar at La Condesa. The cocktail panel at the Austin Food & Wine Festival included Nate Wales of La Condesa, Jessica Sanders of Drink.Well, Qui's Justin Elliott and moderator David Alan. A gimlet from Drink.Well. Tequila bramble and white palmetto coktails from Qui.)
Jessica Sanders takes a sensei’s approach behind the bar. At a Drink.Well bourbon tasting last year, she drew me into the circle of brown liquors with both the sweet caramel of Makers Mark and the hot bluster of Old Grand Dad, with Buffalo Trace and Four Roses to complete the circle.
In that same Zen way, she’s open to whatever name fits the job. “There’s a certain level of pretension in being anti-pretentious,” she said. “I don’t hate the word ‘mixologist’ that much, only because it does denote a different skillset. In some ways, I’m a terrible bartender, but I do think I’m a damn good drink-maker. I make drinks for a living.”
As a bar owner, Sanders said she doesn’t feel like she has the street cred to be called a bartender like Drink.Well’s Aaron Kimmel, who also picks up shifts at the divey Grackle on East Sixth, or Carley Dunavant, who also works at Odd Duck.
(ABOVE: The Floradora and Prescription Julep cocktails from Chris Bostick’s Half Step bar on Rainey Street.)
Outside of the Food & Wine festival conversation but in a similar spirit, Chris Bostick is getting the full bar-owner experience, taking a disabused bungalow on Rainey Street from a cabin-in-the-woods vibe to the sharply styled Half Step this year in a drawn-out arc of delays. The drinks at Half Step stand out for their custom ice treatments: crunchy Sonic ice for a Prescription Julep, an obelisk cut to fit a tall Collins glass for the Floradora, a single outsized cube for an old-fashioned.
For a barman with an “ice program,” Bostick is as grounded as a construction foreman. “I still like the word ‘bartender,’ but there’s all types. There’s dive bartenders, there’s club bartenders, there’s restaurant bartenders, there’s cocktail bartenders,” he said. “The most well-rounded bartenders are the ones who’ve had the opportunity of being all of those things.” Spoken by someone who’s been all of those things in a career that began in 1994 at Lone Star Cafe in Round Rock.
Josh Loving worked with a similar ice program in Austin, at Weather Up on East Cesar Chavez, before he started working at Half Step this year. His portfolio spans wine and cocktail programs in equal measure at Austin stalwarts including Fino, Jeffrey’s, Josephine House and Vino Vino. “One thing I will say is that a bartender works at a bar and a mixologist does not,” Loving said. “A mixologist is like. ‘I have something bigger to prove,’ as if what I do isn’t good enough.”
But there’s no stopping the freight train of what he calls “convenience store” expectations. “It happens at Half Step and bars like it, where the fact that we don’t have Red Bull is like, ‘What do you mean you don’t have Red Bull?’ ” he said. “It’s like going into a sushi bar and being like, ‘Well I wanted a tuna sandwich.’ ”
Don’t get him wrong: “It’s like an extension of David Alan’s argument,” Loving said. “I don’t care what people drink. If someone comes into the bar and says, ‘I want X.’ And I have the materials to make X, I’m happy to make it.”
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)