Mixology is defined as the art and skill of mixing drinks. The term is as technical-sounding as some of the ingredients being used in the handcrafted cocktails enjoyed by Jacksonville drinkers. But if you ask the person behind the bar what it is that they do, the word mixology definitely won’t be mentioned.
“It’s just a term a lot of bartenders wrestle with because it sounds pretentious,” Kurt Rogers, beverage director at Sidecar, an urban cocktail bar in San Marco, said. “Most of us cut our teeth at smoky dive bars and we just wanted to forward our craft. This is the natural progression for a career bartender.”
Rogers is the Jacksonville chapter president for the U.S. Bartenders Guild (USBG) and credits his time at Orsay as pivotal to his career. Even local bartenders who aren’t Orsay alum hail the restaurant as the catalyst of the local craft cocktail movement.
“There were dive bars, Irish pubs and really bad nightclubs. Other than Orsay, there just wasn’t a bar for me,” said Jay Albertelli, proprietor of Dos Gatos, a handcrafted cocktail bar in downtown Jacksonville with a newly opened second location in St. Augustine.
When Orsay opened in 2008 they went beyond the trendy martini craze with a guiding vision to have a cocktail program that reflected the kitchen. “If you are fresh and farm to table on your dinner menu, why would your cocktails be made from powdered sour mix and standard syrups?” Alex Smith, who succeeded Rogers as the spirits director for Orsay and Black Sheep, said. “It’s all about taking things back to basics, before everything was mass produced.”
The food and beverage industry is one unit, and as consumer preferences called for locally sourced, fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch recipes at restaurants, the trend transcended to bar menus. Craft cocktails, the generally preferred term over mixology, simply describes how bartenders are thinking about the balance and structure of the cocktail, using proper technique, carefully selecting spirits and fresh ingredients and making syrups, sours, shrubs and infusions in-house. It’s about consistency, building on classic combinations and keeping it simple with about three to five ingredients.
“The spirits speak for themselves. We don’t put ‘homemade’ on the menu because it should be known and expected,” said Ford Roberts, vice president of the Jax USBG chapter and general manager at Grape and Grain Exchange, a neighborhood spirit retailer and tasting bar in San Marco. “I want the industry to get to the point where we don’t have to call it ‘craft’ or ‘handcrafted.’ It’ll just be called a cocktail and you will already know it’s going to have fresh ingredients and be well-made.”
It does seems that this standard is now the rule, not the exception. In the past few years, Jacksonville restaurants and bars have put a focus on their cocktail programs. Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, Black Sheep, Dos Gatos, Bistro Aix, Sidecar, Grape and Grain Exchange, The Parlour, Volstead, Taverna, the Shim Sham Room … the list goes on and on. You could possibly draw a correlation between the rise in popularity to the general public’s ability to Google the ingredients found on local drink menus. Bonal. Falernum. Shrub. Byrrh. Fernet Branca. Turbinado.
Bartenders hate the word mixology for sounding too high brow, but to the average imbiber some menu descriptions read like scientific taxonomies. The true difference between a mixologist and a bartender, Smith says, is pretty simple.
“Mixology is about the drinks, bartending is about the people,” said Smith. “At the end of the day we’re a hospitality industry and it’s more about the guest than the glass.”
A great bartender will engage and ask questions and in about 20 seconds be able to mix something up that you’re likely to love. But just because you’re at a craft cocktail bar doesn’t mean you have to order something that intimidates you.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously. People should feel comfortable ordering what they want, because the bar is supposed to be fun,” Albertelli said. “I love that people come in and order vintage cocktails. But I also love that people order shots of Rumple Minze because sometimes you just want to get loose. Or if you want a Mich Ultra, and that’s what makes you happy, we’re completely OK with that.”