Like most culinary trends, local currents drive much of what happens today behind the bar. In New York, for instance, classic cocktails and their tweaked contemporary progeny are still at the leading edge, while in Boston and Washington, D.C., there’s a strong culinary and food-minded evolution afoot. In Chicago, a movement toward better kitchen skills is advancing the city’s food-and-drink connection, while in California, bartenders are more likely to exploit their advantage when it comes to getting fresh ingredients, especially citrus.
Whatever the various national and regional mixology trends, there are some fairly consistent major themes running through the cocktails that bartenders are working on, especially as they rebuild the reputation of American drinks and drink making.
For one, the speakeasy fad may have slowed in major markets, but in many parts of the country it’s still new and compelling. Great ice is still an issue, and fresh is still the rule of the day, with some bartenders grabbing a share of their restaurant’s kitchen garden to grow varieties of herbs, fruits and other ingredients. Tiki also continues its resurgence in the West Coast and beyond.
With every new revival, there is the need to be true to the original creation. For instance, the Tiki renewal has led to a new search for authentic swizzle sticks, made from tiny branches of a certain Caribbean tree first used on sugar plantations in the West Indies to stir a rum drink called a switchel. About 6 inches long with several spikes at the bottom, the stick was meant to “swizzle” drinks built in a glass of crushed ice with spirit, lime juice and falernum, and serve as a tiny hand-held blender. Although it can be considered the forebear of the modern varieties so ubiquitous in island bars, bartenders at a few classic bars serving a swizzle, whether Tiki or not, like mixing without them.
But which came first? The Tiki drink or the original swizzle stick? Does the drink create the bar tool or the bar tool the drink? No matter, really. Suffice it to say that trends in drinking and trends in bar tools go hand in hand. Today’s bar toolbox is somewhat different from that of years past and continues to evolve in ever-new directions.
Not so long ago, for example, a clean shirt and comfortable shoes were the limit of what most bartenders were required to maintain to work a shift anywhere. Equipment needed to make drinks — the basic tools of the trade — almost always were supplied by the bar operator.
But today, especially at the leading-edge bars in major markets, bartenders have assembled their own personal bags of tricks, packing them with once obscure items, such as anvil ice picks and Lewis bags to crush ice, as well as Japanese mixing glasses. Just as they’ve revived hard-to-source spirits, traveling bartenders now spur interest when returning from overseas trips with beautifully crafted bar spoons, especially precise pourers or even the mundane, but well-crafted, swizzle stick.
Suppliers have noticed this: UberBarTools built a business based on hefty, better-made bar tools, including stirrers, strainers and pourers that are upping the level of quality beyond what had become standard in an industry often looking for the cheapest solution. The growth of companies like it is emblematic of the interest among bartenders in better equipment.
“These are the things we thought were needed, and with some items, we’re hearing from bartenders that they’ve been waiting for this forever,” says Greg Boehm of Mud Puddle Books, who branched out from reprinting classic cocktail books to sell and manufacture bar ware, bitters and other bar necessities.
This development, and in many cases re-creation, of quality bar tools has spurred new gear as well. For instance, bartenders once carried all the tools they needed in a canvas wrap similar to a chef’s kit, but as the tools of the craft are refined and expanded, more capacious totes are emerging. Jim Meehan of NYC’s PDT, who frequently works major events, designed a utility bag and bar rollup for luxury leather-wear maker Moore & Giles, complete with removable padded sections, elastic tool holders and a plethora of nooks and crannies perfect for the most tool obsessed barman. It’s now sold on a variety of Websites as, what else, the Meehan bag, and it was on the holiday gift list of many pros and passionate amateurs.
Other bartenders are making the bartender’s equipment match the needs of the cocktail resurgence on their own.
Don Lee, who’s tended bar at PDT and Momofuku in New York City, saw such a need that he started working on developing new items to meet the requirements of contemporary mixology for Boehm, which now sells pitchers, bar spoons and more at www.cocktailkingdom.com. “When I was setting up the bar at Momofuku, I would take what equipment I could find and bend them into the shape I wanted.” Lee now is creating and testing spoons, shakers and strainers to develop a range of consistently well-made bar tools.
One of Boehm’s most popular items is a dual-sided 0.5-by-0.75-ounce jigger with a 0.25-ounce line etched inside. This particular size is hard to find, but the real advantage, Lee says, is the elongated shape that prevents a fast pour from splashing over the edge, saving time, alcohol and money.
Lee and Boehm are currently testing blue-blazer mugs, metal on metal Boston tins, a double jigger glass with 1- and 2-ounce measures and etched interior lines for 0.5, 0.75, 1.5 and 1.25 ounces and a Hawthorne strainer. Soon to be released are silver and nickel julep cups and a julep strainer to join their line of copper Moscow Mule mugs, bar spoons and heavy-duty food-grade plastic muddlers.
While most of the newer bar tools are a bit pricier, Lee says the quality, durability and class of the items make them a bargain. “The Japanese mixing glasses are not only stable, useful and efficient, but as soon as a customer sees you pull out a mixing pitcher with lines cut into it instead of the pint glass they’re used to seeing bartenders working with, it adds to the pageantry and show.”
Sounds suspiciously like the “wow factor” frequently talked about. But in terms of bar tools, it’s rarely found at the level of the fast shake, hand-chipping ice and other contemporary bar techniques. With the advent of inventive and attractive bar tools, looks like times are changing. NCB
Buying Bar Blenders
Some bartenders hate making blended drinks — the noise, the mess, the time, the clean up, the breakdowns, oh, and the noise! Others are taking a more refined approach, finding blenders that let them differentiate their bar and give patrons what they want while delivering operational advantages and allowing them to get creative. Those are the bartenders for whom a blender is a prize possession and profit maker.
The key to finding such a blender is to locate one that fits your program, space and budget. Luckily, the major blender suppliers, including Hamilton Beach, Blendtec, Oster and Waring, offer a range of models that address most bartenders’ concerns. The Vitamix line, for example, includes the recently introduced The Quiet One, said to be the quietest blender available, and the BarBoss Advanced, a programmable unit made for the heavy use of an active bar.
When shopping for blenders, keep the following criteria in mind:
Container — The container material and capacity are crucial. Stainless might be the most durable and give a sleek look, but glass and plastic showcase the drink being made. Capacity is dictated by the type and number of drinks to be produced; if you are menuing a 16-ounce
frozen Margarita and want to be able to churn them out, a 48-ounce container might be in order because it enables you to mix up multiple servings.
Base — Doesn’t sound too exciting, but the base is really important. Not only does it provide stability for the blender, it also houses the controls, which must be user-friendly, and its finish must be easy to clean. Examine all these elements when considering a particular blender.
Power — The more wattage or horsepower (HP), the easier it is to make thicker drinks or blend denser ingredients. Bear in mind that one unit of HP is equal to 745 Watts. Consider whether you’ll be chopping frozen fruit, ice or thicker ingredients; if so, look for 2 HP or higher.
Controls and Programming — On/Off , High/Low and Pulse are the baseline controls on most of today’s bar blenders, but many models also are pre-programmed for specific drink styles or consistencies; some units can be programmed (sometimes using separate software) for custom operation. Let your drink menu be your guide in what you need, or perhaps allow the available options to inspire you to get creative!
Ease of Cleaning — The materials and finishes used on the blender all contribute to ease of cleaning the unit, as does the construction of the base, the placement of controls and the way the blades and container assemble. Bear in mind that a stainless base will display fingerprints, some plastic containers may cloud over and the nooks and crannies around control knobs and buttons will need care and cleaning. Give any blender you’re considering an ease-of-cleaning assessment before purchasing.