The inviolate truth about drink making is that the fresher the ingredients, the more vibrant and enjoyable the cocktail. In a time when success is often determined one drink at a time, mixologists and bar chefs are increasingly reaching for the bar muddler when looking to elevate their cocktails to fresh new heights. Invariably the move pays off.
Essentially, muddling does for a cocktail what high definition does for television. In both instances, the result is crisper, more brilliant and ultimately yields a more pleasurable experience. The drinks prepared with freshly muddled ingredients are a cut above the rest, typically possessing supple, satiny textured bodies, generous bouquets and palates imbued with enticing, tree-ripened flavors.
Equally beneficial is that the technique effectively expands what products can be incorporated into drink making, a nearly endless selection of ingredients ranging from ginger, cucumbers and peppers to basil, mint and every type of fresh fruit imaginable. Factor in how it enhances production value, and you’ll begin to appreciate why muddling has become a significant beverage trend.
While seemingly no more involved than smashing the daylights out of defenseless fruit, muddling does require a modicum of technique. For example, when muddling citrus, there are some drinks in which it would be best to only lightly muddle the fruit so as not to release too much of the pith’s bitterness. Other drinks, especially those calling for added sugar, can better tolerate the bitter component, so enthusiastic muddling is encouraged.
For best results, outfit your bar with two different styles of muddlers. The first is the standard 7- to 9-inch wooden pestle with a diameter of roughly ¾ inch, which is suitable for light duty. The other type of muddler beneficial behind the bar originated in South America. It is considerably longer, wider and heftier to better pulverize a gaggle of lime wedges for such drinks as the Caipirinha and Caipiroshka.
Maximizing the Muddled Difference
The Mojito is likely the first drink most bartenders encounter that requires muddling, a process essential to recreating the cocktail’s true character and depth of flavor. The flat of the muddler is used to gently compress the mint leaves to release their flavor-laden essential oils. The lime wedges are lightly crushed to express the fresh juice while not bruising the bitter white pith. Both ingredients permeate every facet of the cocktail.
Drinks such as the Old Fashioned, Caipirinha and Mojito traditionally are prepared directly in the glass in which they’re presented. The muddled mélange enhances their appearance and is seen as a sign of uncompromising quality.
For some time, these tall, venerable drinks demarked the extent of a muddler’s professional range. The prevailing rationale was that swirling pulp have no place in cocktails, which are a invariably served clear, refined and free of muddled debris.
Fortunately for society, a new generation of top-notch bartenders rendered the status quo passé by outfitting their bars with handled tea strainers. At once, the creative floodgates were thrown open. Mixologists and bar chefs soon began crafting cocktails by muddling fresh products directly in shakers rather than the traditional service glass. Then after vigorously shaking the contents — ice, muddled fruit and all — the bartender pours the frothing cocktail through the fine-mesh strainer en route to the chilled glass waiting below. Nary a trace of flotsam makes its way to the finished cocktail.
Muddling in all of its glory is altering the contemporary landscape. For example, the Heirloom Tomato Mojito is a specialty at Nacional 27 in Chicago created by Sommelier and Master Mixologist Chef Adam Seger. His variation of the Mojito is prepared with muddled lime wedges, Heirloom and green tomato wedges, basil leaves, kosher salt and fresh black pepper. He then adds a jigger of Gran Centenario Plata, a near fill with tonic and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The cocktail is vital, engaging and brimming with sun-drenched flavors.
“Muddled cocktails are ideal for seasonal cocktail menus and sustainable agriculture,” cocktail guru Jim Meehan states. “In New York City, we get great local produce from June to September, and it would be a waste to not to use as much as possible to make drinks. The herbaceous flavors of gin and tequila work really well with fresh vegetables, such as cucumber, green pepper and even celery. Herbs, such as mint, basil, tarragon and lemon verbena, add complexity to a drink depending on which spirit and fresh fruits are in the mix.”
Two Meehan creations prove his point. The Garden City is prepared by muddling in a mixing glass a small handful of fresh tarragon with lemon juice and simple syrup, after which he adds ice, a jigger of Plymouth Gin and Gilka Kümmel. The drink is shaken and double-strained into a chilled coupe glass. The caraway-flavored kümmel and fresh tarragon marry beautifully with the herbal and citrus-infused Plymouth Gin rendering the cocktail fragrant and delicious.
The El Jimador’s Harvest is constructed by muddling together Thai basil leaves, two cucumber slices and a half shot of St-Germain Elderflower Cordial. Afterward, Meehan adds Jose Cuervo Platino Tequila and ruby red grapefruit juice, shakes the drink with ice and then double strains the drink into a coupe glass. The constituent ingredients meld seamlessly into a delightfully spry cocktail.
The Sangre de Fresa is a contemporary classic at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, a San Francisco eatery imbued with the atmosphere, conviviality and flavor of Provence. The drink features muddled basil, strawberries and balsamic simple syrup, a jigger of Ypióca Cachaça and lime juice. The ingredients are shaken with ice and poured directly into a chilled pilsner glass. It’s finished with a dose of club soda, fresh strawberry and a sprig of basil.
Muddling is just another example of an overnight sensation over a century in the making.