Just as the eager culinary graduate starts a new job with his or her own set of knives and utensils, the mixologist should tote his or her shakers, strainers and jiggers, demonstrating an equal sense of commitment and pride. Many of the pieces in a mixologist’s toolkit have been in existence a long time, while some are more modern innovations. Others still may be borrowed from the kitchen (or the workbench). We asked cocktail experts for their input on what a bartender must have on hand to consistently and efficiently tend bar today.
Get Schooled in Tools
As the story goes, back in the day all bartenders needed when showing up for a new gig was a smile and a clean shirt. That tale is not too far off, says bartender, cocktail consultant, educator and author Dale DeGroff. In the 1960s and ‘70s, he explains, customers weren’t ordering complex cocktails, so the lack of bar tools didn’t really matter. But as the culinary world started to focus on a return to flavor and more demanding cuisines like Pan-Asian and Fusion took hold, culinary cocktails began to rise in popularity — requiring gadgets to squeeze fresh juices and strain them out, pit fresh cherries, whisk egg whites and create striking garnishes. DeGroff recalls his time at New York City’s Rainbow Room in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, when his expanding cocktail repertoire had him reaching for Microplane graters, shears, chinois and colanders. (He also recognizes, however, that bar manuals from the 19th century showed bartenders using a bevy of bar tools, so it’s not just a modern trend.)
DeGroff is one of the principals of Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), a high-level spirits and bartending education program, which heads up the invitation-only BarSmarts Advanced and the public BarSmarts Wired training programs started by Pernod Ricard. All registered BarSmarts Advanced students receive a set of the must-have bar tools: muddler, Boston shaker, Hawthorne strainer, julep strainer, barspoon and jiggers. An additional must-have item, he says, would be a citrus press for squeezing fresh citrus juice. Adam Bernbach, bar manager at Washington, D.C.’s Proof, adds a cutting board, bottle opener, peeler and towels to his list of necessary items. He recommends prospective bartenders conduct a site visit ahead of time to scout the backbar and see what the venue already has, and then supplement with additional tools. Bernbach prefers the ergonomic and relatively affordable OXO line, and purchases equipment from www.cocktailkingdom.com or www.kegworks.com.
The availability and quality of bar tools have improved over the years, resulting in confidence and competence behind the bar. But it’s still not uncommon to see shortcuts and poor techniques — often from wielding the wrong instruments. Mixologist, cocktail consultant and author Tony Abou-Ganim recounts the story of a recent trip to a steakhouse: He ordered a stirred Martini, but the bartender instead shook it right in front of him. Even more egregious, she hit the shaker on the edge of the bar to break the seal and crack-strained it without a strainer, resulting in a diluted drink with bits of ice floating in it. Clearly, he says, some bartenders and operators have a ways to go.
Shaking it Up
Let’s start with that shaker. Though ubiquitous in the home bar, the three-piece Cobbler shaker suffers from a sloppy, uneven pour because of its tiny holes; Abou-Ganim recommends it solely for shaking straight vodka. Though he does recognize the Cobbler shaker’s straightforward design and popularity for tableside Martini service, the Boston shaker remains the professional standard. In fact, Abou-Ganim’s own line of bar tools, TAG BAR, will introduce new products this summer; in that line, the same shaker tin will fit both the Cobbler top or mixing glass, for true mix or match compatibility. (No matter the design, banging the shaker on the bar or counter to break the seal is a definite no-no. It’s unprofessional and dangerous to boot.)
Next to a knife, no older bar tool exists than the muddler. Called a toddystick in Revolutionary times, it was a staple in taverns for crushing lumps of sugar and combining it with water and other liquids. These days, the muddler is an absolute necessity for often-ordered drinks like the Mojito and Caipirinha. A mere 10 years ago, a bartender’s only option was a wooden version covered in lacquer or varnish, which Abou-Ganim points out wears off quickly and inadvertently ends up, little by little, in customers’ drinks. Non-porous metal and plastic versions abound, some with flat ends and others that resemble meat tenderizers. All should feel substantial in the hand and do the work without too much effort. The new ProCrush by ÜberBarTools not only muddles and crushes, but also features a new “tri-ergo” thumb insertion point that allows muddling to become a low-energy movement, so the weight of the muddler does most of the compression work rather than your shoulders and arms. Turn it upside down to deftly crush ice.