Anyone can pour a shot of whiskey in an ice-filled cup, top it off with cola and call it a mixed drink. But in the world of bartending, that’s the equivalent of paint-by-numbers. For cocktail lovers who wish to elevate their home bartending game to more than just a mixer and some booze, a handful of tools, spirits and fresh ingredients are not just a want, they are a necessity. Let’s start with the hardware—the tools of the trade that act as veritable building blocks for your home bar. Because before a bartender can even consider preparing a drink, he/she needs to surround themselves with the right tools.
The shaker is the most important bartending tool because it’s the “house” where all of the different spirits, mixers and ingredients are melded together to create the drink. The most popular varieties are the Boston Shaker and the Cobbler Shaker. The Boston Shaker is a pint glass/tin cup combo, while the Cobbler Shaker has a tin cup, lid and built in strainer. “Every bartender needs a cocktail shaker set: a large and small shaker tin,” says John McCarthy of New York’s Cedar Local.
Whether it’s an over-the-top cut-crystal, beaker style glass from Japan or just a simple pint glass, the mixing glass is a valuable tool for every bartender. The mixing glass can be the pint glass that is paired with the Boston Shaker, but it can also be the Yarai mixing glass, a Japanese glass that is as beautiful as it is functional. This glass is used when the drink is stirred instead of shaken.
Perfectly paired with a mixing glass, a good bar spoon is the right tool for stirring cocktails. This isn’t your average spoon; It’s a long, skinny, twisted spoon that measures roughly a teaspoon. The spiraled design allows the bartender to easily rotate the spoon while stirring the cocktail. “Learning how to properly stir a cocktail, as well as knowing which cocktails should be stirred and not shaken, is paramount to any bartender, amateur or professional,” says Josh Renfree, Head Bartender at Hollywood’s BOA Steakhouse.
For a bartender, just any old knife won’t do. It has to be sturdy, sharp and have a good grip. It’s going to be used for many different jobs. “My good friend Jackson Cannon created quite possibly the world’s most perfect bar knife (pictured),” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common and Pepe Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and the author of The Bar Book.
The most well known strainer, the Hawthorne can be spotted by the coils that surround the edge. This extremely fine strainer is perfect for ingredients that contain pulp, seeds or any other random, mystery chunks. “A strainer is probably the most important thing, not only to aerate the cocktail, but to keep out the ice,” says John Jackson, Head Bartender of LA’s Providence. “I’m definitely a proponent of double straining. I think it’s redundant to put ice on top of ice. [Double straining] gives the drink a much cleaner finish.”
Everyone loves a good Julep, especially around Kentucky Derby time. Legend has it that the Julep Strainer was originally used “back in the day” not for mixing cocktails, but for when people were drinking their cocktails—the big spoon kept the ice and fruit in the cocktail from splashing against their upper lip. Today, it’s used to strain stirred drinks. The Julep Strainer is a bowl-shaped tool with a handle that fits over a mixing glass, instead of a shaker.
The muddler is used for bruising various herbs, like mint or cilantro, or crushing fruit, like blackberries. When using a muddler with fruit, bartenders can get their aggression out by using all of their might to smash the fruit. A delicate hand is needed for herbs because the bartender merely wants to release the oils and flavors associated with the herb, not completely destroy it for fear of releasing unwanted, bitter flavors.
Made for a variety of different measurements, jiggers are employed to guarantee the bartender uses the proper amounts of spirits and ingredients. “Too many cocktails are ruined by free-pouring. The ratio of ingredients can make or break a cocktail,” says Josh Renfree, Head Bartender at Hollywood’s BOA Steakhouse. It seems obvious, but many bartenders fear the jigger as a crutch, or allow their egos to dismiss the training wheel aspect of the tool. “A jigger allows you to control inconsistency in liquid pours and help create recipes,” says Dave Keenan, Bar Manager of Hermosa Beach’s Abigaile and Ocean Bar.
Simply put, a zester is the tool bartenders and chefs use to remove the zest from lemons, limes, oranges and other citrus fruits. Most zesters are small, hand held tools with a handle and a curved end with perforated holes, similar to a cheese grater.
Similar to a zester, the peeler is an important tool used by bartenders to create garnishes. “A fruit peeler is key for making a fresh garnish, but it can also help create bitters in classic cocktails, which are often overlooked,” says Renfree. Want to create that delicate, curling orange peel garnish in your next Old Fashioned? This is the tool for the job.