Five years ago, as a new homeowner furiously painting the walls of our high-ceilinged 30-foot-long great room, I had high expectations for a beautiful cocktail station in our dining area. I really believed we would have a sleek, expansive wooden bar replete with shelves, drawers, wine glass holders, and a wide countertop. I would have all my tools at the ready.
The reality? A tiny, rickety, assemble-it-yo’self cabinet from Bed Bath & Beyond that we outgrew about two months into our residence in this house. Some of my tools are in kitchen drawers, some are piled with stacks of pressed cardboard beer coasters in the cabinet’s single drawer. With all the liquor bottles crammed onto the shelves, there’s always an odd man out. But none of this haphazard storage stops me from making a good cocktail when I want one.
Thus, for the second installment of Building the Bar, we’ll take a look at the tools that make you a better bartender—excuse me, mixologist. Even if you don’t have a swanky bar cabinet that Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper would lust manfully over, you can still make a mean Manhattan. Or martini. Or mojito.
The bulbous stainless steel shaker with a built-in strainer—the kind seen frequently in James Bond films—is what most of us envision as the cocktail shaker standard. But for those intrigued by the way certain bartenders shake a drink using a pint glass and a steel tumbler, that apparatus is called a Boston shaker, and it’s actually quite easy to use once you get the hang of it. I switched to the Boston shaker after my retro cobbler shaker cold-fused itself together one too many times, making it impossible to separate and clean the constituent parts. Have you ever sprayed a West Side across your kitchen? Have you ever done it twice? Fun times.
If the idea of pouring a drink through a tiny opening between two glasses is too scary for you to contemplate, just separate the glasses and place a Hawthorne strainer over the stainless steel tumbler before pouring the ice-cold contents into your cocktail glass. (Yes, that’s what that weird wiry contraption is used for!)
I know, the name sounds dirty-slash-offensive. But that’s really what you call the double-sided steel cup that bartenders use to measure out the correct amount of spirits and mixers for cocktails. The large cup (the” jigger”) and small cup (the “pony”) measure different amounts depending on the jigger model. My jigger pours a standard shot of 1 1/2 ounces with a pony of 3/4 ounce, so I use my stainless steel OXO measuring cup to measure other amounts. By the way, you’ve noticed all the tools I’ve described so far are glass or steel, right? So easy to clean—rinse and reuse!
Another funny name, another crucial tool for the cocktail enthusiast. The muddler gently crushes herbs and citrus to release essential oils that provide flavor to the drink. Typically a muddler has one end that’s either flat or studded with “teeth” for crushing and pressing, and a skinnier round end for stirring and mixing. Use a muddler to make the strawberry and basil-infused Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder or a classic mojito.
Unless you’re committing yourself exclusively to screw-tops, you’ll have to use a corkscrew someday. My opinion on the matter is that one is no better than the other when it comes down to it—the best corkscrew is the one you’re most comfortable using, since that means you’ll get into the wine that much more quickly:
- waiter’s corkscrew: the hinged style popular with servers for the fact that it fits so easily in an apron or pants pocket. This is my favorite corkscrew for its size, simplicity, and leverage. Most waiter’s corkscrews also have a small serrated knife blade for removing the foil from the bottle neck.
- wing corkscrew: with a bottle cap opener built into the “head” of the corkscrew, this is the opener we all probably used when first trying to crack open the cork. Personally, I never can get the right leverage with these things, so this is why it’s important to experiment with different types of corkscrews. It’s not you—it’s the tool!
- Rabbit-style corkscrew: once you figure out how to wrap the various elements of these large openers around the neck and into the cork, these corkscrews are a snap. Lift the lever and you’re in business!
Sparkling wine snobs would do well to keep Champagne pliers and a recorker on hand. The pliers are designed to clamp around the fat cork of a Champagne bottle, yanking it out safely and easily, while the recorker creates a vacuum seal to keep the fizz in for a few more days.
Once you’ve successfully opened your bottle of wine, you aren’t necessarily stuck drinking the whole thing in one sitting. (Darn.) Wine savers pair a plunger-type pump with a set of rubber stoppers; insert one of the stoppers into your half-empty bottle of wine, pump the air out of the bottle with the plunger, and keep your bottle (almost) as fresh as it was when just uncorked for another night. Note that these aren’t true airtight seals and that the wine will oxidize over time. For best results, put the stoppered bottle of wine in the fridge overnight and drink it within a day or two. After a week, you’ll have vinegar wine just like you would if you never vacuum sealed it.
Some other nice to have, but not need-to-have, tools:
Ice Cube Molds
So you’re not handy with an ice pick and chisel, but you’d really like to have big honking ice cubes like the gentleman with the handlebar mustachio serves you in that cute little speakeasy downtown. Silicone ice cube trays to the rescue! Word of warning: you may be tempted to refill your glass of bourbon more than once due to the leftover ice in your glass after the first round. Three glasses later, you may be cursing that darn huge cube.
Citrus Reamers and Zesters
Chances are there’s some sort of orange juicer or citrus press in your kitchen right now, but when it comes to single cocktails, I prefer a wooden lemon reamer(again with the funny names!) for quick dispatching of a single lemon or lime. No muss, no fuss, rinse and you’re done. And if you want those pretty lemon peel curlicues in your drink, a wide zester is your best friend. Hook the sharp end into your lemon and pull toward you as you twist the lemon. Voila!
Yes, you could use a spoon. Or a chopstick. Or, in certain desperate cases, your finger. (What? Don’t look at me like that!) But there’s something so classy about a cocktail stirrer or bar spoon for swizzling your drink. Mine have adorable golden bees perched on their handles, but you could adorn your Tom Collins with a flamingo, if you so desire.