As the contents of many a suburban guest-bedroom closet will inform you, every hobby has its own specific tools; and as any hobbyist can tell you, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a project and then being stalled for want of the proper gadget. Mixology is no different, although it has an advantage over some in that the home bartender can get by with relatively few items on hand. There are, however, certain pieces that no cocktail-maker should be without:
Shaker. The majority of popular cocktails are shaken, as it’s a quick way to simultaneously combine ingredients and cool them over ice. There’s some debate over the superiority of the Boston-style shaker, versus the more common cobbler shaker. So far as the Bartender has ever noticed, the Boston shaker has a slight edge in versatility (as both sides can be used as mixing glasses at once), which is likely why many professional bartenders use them. But the built-in straining capabilities of the cobbler shaker are rather more convenient to the home bartender, and preclude the necessity of buying a separate cocktail strainer.
One other point of note: shakers, like many items designed to hold liquid, come in single-walled and double-walled varieties. Either will work just fine, but the insulation of a double-walled shaker will simultaneously keep your drinks cooler and your fingers from getting cold while you’re shaking them. On the other hand, some mixologists judge a cocktail’s readiness by the amount of condensation on the outside of the shaker; obviously, a double-walled version would prevent that. Ultimately, it’s up to your personal preference.
Measurer. It takes years to develop a trained eye for pours, and even then it’s a good idea to measure out portions for any drink involving more than two ingredients – it can only take one mis-poured ingredient to ruin a cocktail and waste the alcohol involved. The Bartender’s first measuring device was a shot glass with measurement indicators; now, she uses a small angled measuring cup for convenience when pouring from above. If you wish to go the more traditional route, there’s always the jigger, named after bartending slang for a 1.5 ounce measurement. Be careful, however; jiggers come in varying sizes, and not all of them even measure a proper jigger (or pony, the slang for a 1 ounce pour). Given the potential for confusion and the fact that lots of cocktails require more esoteric measurements, the Bartender recommends that the beginner find something properly demarcated.
Mixing glasses. Also known as pint glasses, they’re used for mixing drinks, but can also serve as beer glasses, water glasses, collins glasses, or half of a Boston shaker. Plus, they’re a popular promotional item with breweries, so if you have a favorite you want to demonstrate your support for, you can buy from them.
Bamboo chopsticks. You can get a fancy bar spoon with the swirled stem if you like, but plain ol’ chopsticks are super-cheap (especially if you can get them from a nearby Asian store) and work just as well for stirring drinks.
Small, sharp, serrated knife. This is one area where you don’t want to skimp on quality. A good knife will last you damn near forever, especially if you hand-wash and remember to sharpen it now and then. The Bartender has personal experience with Wusthof, who make some of the best kitchen knives in the world; their 4.5″ serrated utility knife isn’t too pricey and will likely be bisecting citrus fruits and cutting garnishes long after you’re gone from this planet. Use that for a few weeks, and then just try going back to your usual K-mart specials. (Straight-edged knives will work too, but serrations are of particular help when cutting citrus peel, which you will be doing quite often.)
Cutting board. Here, on the other hand, cheap is just fine. A small plastic one will work quite well, and can go through the dishwasher, besides.
Juicer/Strainer. The Bartender prefers the ergonomics of a handheld reamer with a separate strainer, but there are plenty of all-in-one options as well. Remember what we discussed in the post on ingredients? Make certain it’s strong enough and comfortable enough to withstand constant use.
Dish towel/Bar rag. Glasses need drying, and spills happen. Anything soft and absorbent will do, but you can get lint-free cotton diaper cloths if you’re feeling particularly classy.
There are many other tools advertised for the use of the home bartender, many of which we will likely examine in the future – and some of which may even be useful. But this list should get all but the most ambitious home bartenders through the actual drink-making process. Make certain everything is clean and ready before you start, as leaving a half-full shaker to go and wash your juicer will land you with an overly diluted drink.
As for what happens after the drink is ready…well, presentation is almost as important as content. And while we’re not quite ready to dive headfirst into the subject, a good discussion on glassware should make a nice scratch in the surface. Next week: the difference between hurricanes and highballs, when to use shot glasses and when to use cordial glasses, and why your freezer will be your new best friend!