Homebar Must Haves: Essential Cocktail Tools
It’s Memorial Day! Congrats to you and your three day weekend. It’s the holiday that rings in summer, and in our minds there is absolutely nothing better than summer. Whether you’re spending the day actually in the sun or simply dreaming about it, the entire point of Memorial Day is to get yourself ready for summer. And that includes some fabulous summer drinks. A pitcher of margaritas on your patio after work? A fun take on sangria for a family picnic. Any easy drink for the beach? Or impressing your friends on the 4th with this beloved watermelon drink? Summer sixteen should involve good cocktails. And today, we’ll tell you the tools to use to turn your cocktail dreams into actual fine drinks. The number of tools you really need is shorter and simpler than you might think.
You wouldn’t guess so if you read the ‘Basic Equipment’ section of a bar book, or go to buy a bar tool set from a kitchen store. These sets of ‘basic’ equipment are full of a fairly large number of pretty strange looking devices. The collection is fascinating, but also perhaps a little overwhelming: it’s a lot of new items to find room for in your already full kitchen drawers; and it gives the unfortunate impression that making cocktails must be a difficult and complicated thing to do.
The truth is that the very great majority of those bar tools are only there out of tradition or for their looks. Don’t get me wrong; both tradition and looks are important aspects of cocktail making, and always have been. However, since the purpose of most of these tools is ornamental, you don’t need all of them to get started, or ever. You can afford to pick your shots.
An absinthe spoon is a wonderful little utensil. If you’re a lover of absinthe, or a fan of 19th century flatware, you’ll probably want to find one, an antique if possible. Most of us, though, simply don’t drink absinthe all that often; when we do, we can use a normal spoon, or no spoon at all. If you’re throwing a Derby party on Saturday, you may want to get a julep strainer for the theater of it, theatrics being an especially important element to all of the Derby traditions. Speaking strictly on grounds of utility, though, a julep strainer doesn’t do its job better than or differently from any other strainer.
There are a few items that are absolutely essential for almost all cocktails, on any occasion. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted away from these—or, at least not for too–long by the many curiosities in the bar tool set.
A jigger is a small measuring cup, suitable for the amounts that are used in most cocktail mixing. The jigger is one item for which it’s best to avoid tradition actively. The traditional jigger is a double-sided cup with a handle. It’s iconic. Holding one in your hand makes you feel like a real mixologist. The problem is that it’s not terribly good at its job. First of all, it’s lopsided, both side-to-side and top-to-bottom, making it impossible to stand on its own and easy to spill. Secondly, and even more importantly, it only measures in 1 oz and 1 ½ oz sizes, when it’s equally likely that you’re going to need a ¼ oz or ½ oz measure.
Do yourself a favor, and get a jigger in a modern design, one that stands on its own and measures by the ¼ oz. We’re particularly partial to the stainless steel oxo jigger. It has the necessary features, plus giving measurements in both ounces and tablespoons; and you can see the measuring lines from above, rather than having to get eye level. All of that and it looks nice too.
The Mixing Glass, Shaker, and Strainer
You’re definitely going to need something with which to stir or shake your drinks, and something to strain them into the glass. You have two options here: the standard shaker, or the Boston shaker combination. Both of them are equally traditional, fill the exact same function, and are comparably effective. You just need to choose which of the two you prefer and forget about the other one.
The Boston shaker combination is three pieces, often sold separately, that work together:
- A mixing glass—simply a standard pint glass, used for building drinks that you stir;
- A Boston shaker—a big metal cup with a mouth a little bit larger than a mixing glass. When you fix the mixing glass upside down into the Boston shaker, it forms a tight seal for shaking. To break the seal when you’re done shaking, knock the rim of the shaker with the heel of your hand at the point where the mixing glass and the shaker start to separate;
- A hawthorn strainer—a strainer with a spring that allows it to fit snugly at the mouth of either a mixing glass or a strainer.
The standard shaker is an all-in-one, integrated version of the three pieces of the Boston shaker suite. It consists of a cup, usually of stainless steel but about the size of a mixing glass, with a lid, in which there is a capped strainer. If you’re stirring, you build your drink in the cup, stir, and then put on the uncapped lid for straining and pouring. If you’re shaking, you build the drink in the same cup, shake with the capped lid on, and then take off the cap to strain and pour.
Professional bartenders prefer the separate mixing glass, hawthorn strainer, and Boston shaker. Home bartenders often find the greater simplicity of the standard shaker irresistible. But it’s completely up to you.
When we’re being practical, we find ourselves using the necessary pieces of the Boston shaker combination, particularly if we’re mixing multiple drinks; webstaurantstore sells a handy marked mixing glass that allows you to measure straight into the mixing glass.
It’s not pretty, though. When looks matter more, we use W&P Designs’ nifty standard shaker made from a mason jar. We like the whimsy of it, and the shaker being glass instead of stainless makes it easy to see our beautiful drink in the making.
We hope your drinks are going to involve plenty of fresh herbs or fruit. It’s the very best, and very simple, way to give your cocktails a seasonal spin. Often, you can just add the fruit or herb into the shaker and shake. But if the fruit is a little more durable, the drink is stirred instead of shaken, or the drink is built directly in the glass in which you’ll serve it, you’ll need a muddler. Muddling is gentle mashing; you’re breaking or bruising the fruit or herb rather than smashing it. A muddler, with its blunt wooden edge, makes this gentle bruising very easy to accomplish, and also protects your glass from being cracked in the process.
The Citrus Squeezer
A citrus squeezer is not strictly necessary. You can, of course, just buy citrus juices. And it’s easy to see why you might. Pouring is simple, and makes measuring easy; squeezing, on the other hand, is imprecise and often messy. Nonetheless, we think squeezing is worth it. Fresh-squeezed juices really do taste better in cocktails. Plus, cocktail making often requires twists of citrus peels for garnish. It seems a pity to use the rind and throw out the actual fruit. A good mixologist uses the whole fruit.
That’s all you really need. Don’t let us stop you from getting some swizzle sticks if you want to add some flare to your stirring, or a bar spoon. But in the end a bar spoon is just a spoon, and you have a bunch of those in your drawer already. If you want to get rolling with your cocktails as quickly as possible, find yourself a jigger, some sort of shaker, a muddler, and a citrus squeezer, and get going.