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.
Proper bar tools are vital to a bartender’s (and bar’s) success. All-in-one kits are convenient, like the Boston Roll from ÜberBarTools (right). And a muddler is also a necessity (left: ProCrush by ÜberBarTools).
The cocktail community has lauded ÜberBarTools’ ergonomically designed, comfortable-to-use line of tools. DeGroff refers to ÜberBarTools as the “Cadillac of bar tools” — strong and well made — and is currently consulting with the company to make design improvements on a few products. “Bar tools, as a category, have not evolved for over 25 or 50 years,” notes ÜberBarTools CEO and founder Michael Silvers, “despite improvements in materials, greater understanding of issues such as ergonomics and the drive to achieve consistency by using uniformly conforming tools.” Cheap, poorly designed products are less of an initial investment, but Silvers and DeGroff are of the mindset that constantly replacing broken or poorly performing products will cost operators much more in the long run.
Free Pour vs. Be Sure
Another financial concern behind the bar is regulating the amount of alcohol that goes into each cocktail. Two schools of thought exist on this topic. Those who belong to the traditional free pour camp — the norm 30 or so years ago when a bartender referring to a drink recipe in a cocktail book was uncommon — note the sense of pride in being able to hit the mark every time. They also say giving that “little extra” strengthens the unspoken bond between guest and bartender and makes the bar experience akin to being an invited guest in a host’s home. Tools like the Über ProCheck have handy markings to help bartenders practice how much to pour before attempting it blindly. DeGroff estimates 90 percent of bars free pour, and he has successfully trained staff members using nothing more than mixing glasses and the glassware in which drinks will be served. However, he cautions against free pouring in bars using the Boston shaker with a metal tin. “You can’t free pour into these consistently.”
As bartenders became bar chefs and began turning to cocktail books and perfecting recipes with fresh juices and distinctly flavored ingredients, the use of jiggers increased; today some bars use them every time, for every ingredient. Abou-Ganim recommends always measuring sweet or sour ingredients, as well as those that are strongly flavored. Even an extra quarter-ounce of Maraschino liqueur, he says, can throw off the balance of an Aviation or a Last Word. DeGroff agrees, but recognizes that while careful measuring undoubtedly translates to consistent beverages, some guests might feel cheated or slighted by “stingy” bartenders who adhere to such strict amounts. The pair advocate for the jigger when needed but also respect the free pour.
If frozen drinks are on the menu, a bartender needs a high capacity, professional blender on the counter. Hamilton Beach, Blendtec and Vita-Mix are among the popular brands for bar use. Look for units with strong construction, high-powered motors but quiet operation. Vita-Mix products, for example, are designed with a rugged motor to handle frequent use and heavily iced drinks. The brand’s BarBoss Advance works for front-of-the-house medium use at any nightclub or bar, and its newer, higher-end model, The Quiet One, is designed for upscale bars, country clubs and lounges. Its dramatic sound reduction means a bartender can produce drinks without exceeding background noise. No matter the model, the company recommends two containers for most nightclubs and bars: one in use while the other gets cleaned. For convenience, venues making more than 100 blended drinks daily may want to consider four containers per machine.
A blended drink can be a beautiful thing, if made with the proper tools. Bars should use blenders with at least two containers for optimal workflow. (Left: Vita-Mix The Quiet One; Right: Vita-Mix BarBoss Advance)
Ease of use and reliability will prevent bartenders from using the “blender’s broken” excuse, says Abou-Ganim — either as a legit reason or a justification for bartenders who don’t want to bother with blended drinks. “A Piña Colada is a beautiful drink if it’s done well,” he says.
Even if a cocktail’s not blended, it needs chill in one form or another. “Big, hard, cold ice is the heart and soul of the American cocktail,” notes Abou-Ganim. In addition to ice-making machines like those made by Kold-Draft, bartenders should consider stocking a Lewis bag (for manually crushing ice), an ice pick (for cracking blocks of ice) and even a selection of silicone ice cube trays like those from German producer Tovolo, which come in shapes including perfect squares and long columns. The latter are designed to chill water bottles but also work well in Collins and Highball glasses. And remember: Distilled water that’s free from chlorine and trace elements produces the best tasting and looking ice.
Think Outside the Toolbox
Savvy bartenders often borrow tools from the chef, or find creative uses for the standard instruments. Bernbach, for example, uses the wire spiral on a Hawthorne strainer to help build up the froth in egg white drinks, and he turns to a vegetable peeler rather than a channel knife for zesting. Abou-Ganim thinks a pitter is indispensable for both cherries and olives, and he grabs a melon baller to create unexpected garnishes. Silvers suggests placing misters (to add tinctures or other fragrant ingredients) and squeeze bottles (for syrups and garnishes) on the backbar.
The bartender is often the customer, and by observing what his or her peers use, he or she may glean inspiration and better technique. No matter the brand, model or cost, tools (and, with them, proper technique) are critical to successful bartending and satisfied customers. “A musician cannot make music without instruments,” waxes Silvers. “The same can be said about bar tools.” NCB
While the majority of bar tools out there have been around for a long time (though perhaps improved in design or functionality), some handy new gizmos exist:
Über ProSep The ProSep is the easy, hygienic way to separate egg whites for beverages including Sours and Fizzes. It features a wire frame construction and a stainless steel handle. www.uberbartools.com
Über Boston Bar Roll This all-in-one kit comprises a wide range of the tools bartenders need to make just about any drink, in the convenience of a rolled bag. www.uberbartools.com
TAG BAR Barware All of the pieces in Tony Abou-Ganim’s two new lines of products for the bartender (Basic and Professional) are designed to work together. The same shaker tin fits both the Cobbler top or mixing glass. The barspoon features a true teaspoon for measuring and is weighted for balance and ease of stirring. The bar glass has markings for measurements. www.themodernmixologist.com
Tovolo Perfect Cube Ice Trays Each durable silicone tray produces 15 perfect cubes of ice that are easily removed. www.tovolo.com