What is Mixology?
A portrait of Jerry Thomas, the first American mixologist.
A question we often get asked here at The Millennium Road is "what is mixology?" Simply put, mixology is the art and craft of the cocktail. While often used interchangeably, a distinct difference exists between a cocktail and a mixed drink. A mixed drink, on one hand, is an alcoholic beverage usually consisting of a single liquor and a mixer, typically with the sole purpose of masking or dulling the taste of the alcohol. Rum and coke, gin and tonic, vodka cranberry – these are classic examples of mixed drinks.
A cocktail, on the other hand, is much different. At its core, a cocktail is an alcoholic concoction meant to stimulate and delight the senses through a combination of different flavors, tastes, aromas and aesthetics. The delicious creaminess of a Pina Colada, the beautiful pink hue of a Cosmopolitan, the crazy garnishes on a Bloody Mary – these are examples of classic cocktails arousing this stimulation of the senses. It’s not done by accident either!
This, my friend, is the art of mixology - using high quality ingredients and following specific recipes to create a sensory experience in the form of a cocktail. When drinking a properly made cocktail, it’s imperative to be able to both taste the alcohol and appreciate the other ingredients as well. It’s a fine balance delicately created. So, how is this all achieved?
Enter mixologists. A mixologist is a man or woman trained to be an expert on precise recipes, proper glassware, alcohol and all relevant components. In order to achieve this sensory experience, mixologists use a wide range of liquors, liqueurs, fresh juices, syrups, bitters and other high-quality ingredients. They also use instruments to measure exact proportions for the recipes they follow and to ascertain certain qualities in the cocktail they are creating.
When crafting a cocktail, changing the proportions of an ingredient, or leaving one out all together will completely change the flavor and consistency of a cocktail. A Margarita with no triple sec would be like a chocolate chip cookie with no chocolate chips, it would lose all its sweetness and flat out would not be as enjoyable. I don’t know about you, but I like my chocolate chip cookies to have chocolate chips in them.
So how did this all come to be, and where did mixology come from? As early as 1806, primitive iterations of cocktails were being crafted here in the good ol’ US of A. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the art of mixology began to spread its wings. This all started with a man named Jerry Thomas – the George Washington of American mixology.
Thomas was born in New York in 1832. He learned the trade of bartending as a young man and quickly began to demonstrate a natural talent for the profession. In the early 1850s he became a saloon owner in New York City, the first of many saloons Thomas would own or work for throughout his life.
However, he wasn’t satisfied with serving basic, boring drinks in a regular old-fashioned way. He wanted to create an experience for his guests by using creative and elaborate methods to craft his drinks, wearing flashy and luxurious outfits and (you guessed it) making incredible alcoholic concoctions that would eventually become known as cocktails. This was the birth of American mixology.
Thomas began using new ingredients in his drinks that were never thought of before, leading to the invention of many new cocktails. He encrusted jewels into his bar tools, lit drinks on fire and would even juggle bottles and glasses during the process of crafting his mixtures. His goal was all about creating a wonderful and stimulating experience for his guests, highlighted by the cocktails he served. He even went on tour demonstrating his bartending prowess around the country and around the world. His skill and flair did not go unnoticed. While at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, California during the mid-1800s, Thomas was making more money weekly than the president of the United States.
Cocktails such as the Blue Blazer, the Daisy, the Sour and the Fizz were all originally created by Thomas – some of which are still served today. Thomas is not only credited as being the first American mixologist, but he is also credited with writing and compiling the very first cocktail recipe book written in 1862. He understood the importance of a good recipe, the single most important aspect of mixology.
A copy of Jerry Thomas's Bartenders Guide, originally published in 1862.
Thomas wasn’t just a bartender – he was an artist and student of the trade who transformed it into the creative expressionistic profession we know today as mixology. He also inspired many other mixologists who followed in his footsteps, leading to the creation of a wide range of cocktails that we know and love in modern times.
His actions behind the bar over the years and decades led to a cultural phenomenon of cocktails and mixology being infused into all aspects of our modern society. Happy hour, Sunday brunch, Rupert Holmes’s Pina Colada song, Don Draper drinking Old Fashioneds in the hit show Mad Men – cocktails and mixology are everywhere! It’s no surprise that new cocktails are being created practically daily. Almost every bar or restaurant under the sun has their own house creation or original cocktail. We have Jerry Thomas to thank for that.
Cocktails and mixology go hand in hand, it’s a symbiotic relationship - one cannot exist without the other. The Millennium Road is dedicated to helping teach people about cocktails and mixology in an easy to understand manner. On this site, you’ll find educational information pertaining to all aspects of mixology. You’ll also find cocktail profiles detailing the fascinating history of cocktails we know and love. You can view them here. We also offer for sale quality bar tools to help you achieve that sensory experience Jerry Thomas strived for so many years ago. You can check them out here.
Whether you are a newcomer interested in learning the basics of cocktails and mixology, or a seasoned vet looking for more detailed information and recipes to expand your repertoire, let your journey start here.
Evan & The Millennium Road Team