There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “A poor workman blames his tools.”
When it comes to home bartending, you’ve got a choice to make. Do you avoid investing in an ice crusher, decent cocktail shaker, muddler, and strainer because it gives you an excuse for every subpar cocktail served? Or do you load up on the tools of the trade, and then admit that you blew it by using by ReaLime in your Gin Basil Smash, and then compounded things by straining out the basil leaves with your fingers?
Don’t worry. We’ve all been there.
That said, as you continue your journey towards becoming a home-entertaining version of William T. “Cocktail Bill” Boothby, there are a few essential tools worth investing in. These include the following:
First off, let’s admit something: from a Mason jar to a Tupperware container, you can pretty much use anything as a shaker. Nothing’s stopping you from dumping your Negroni ingredients into a washed-out 28-ounce Hunt’s Stewed Tomatoes can. But just as you don’t wear acid-wash jeans to a wedding, baptism, or, well, anywhere, you need to seriously think about the importance of style when home bartending. And on that front, start with the cocktail shaker.
Should you win the lottery this week, start hunting down an Emile Schuelke-designed Napier cocktail shaker from the ’30s, with the warning that the silver-plated penguin-shaped vessel has gone for as high as $10,000.
\For the rest of us, there are two basic choices. The first is the Cobbler shaker, usually seen in home bars and consisting of two pieces: a bottom, and a top with a built-in strainer and removable cap. Whether you’re going the hammered-steel or embossed-glass route, look for a shaker whose top half slides over the bottom, rather than into it. (Maybe it’s just us, but removing the top of the former is a breeze, while the latter usually ends up in frustration, tears, and enough cursing to shock a Cockney sailor.)
Professionals tend to swear by the Boston shaker, which consists of two cups that are sealed with a good whack once the larger one is placed over the smaller. Go all-steel if you’re prone to breaking everything you touch, or half steel and half glass if there’s nothing you love more than watching the action unfold while you’re mixing your drink.
Going fresh is essential when you’re mixing at home, which means you’ll be going through a lot of limes and lemons, not to mention oranges when it’s Tequila Sunrise season.
There’s nothing wrong with squeezing the crap out of fruit with your hands—truth be told, that’s one of the easiest ways to get juice out of a ripe pineapple when it’s tiki-drink time. But a handheld citrus press does the job far more effectively than your fingers ever will.
Just as effective as a handheld press, and decidedly more old-school-looking, is the wood reamer. Cut a lime in half, and then use the reamer’s ridges to make quick work of it with minimum effort.
You can’t make a proper Mojito or Mint Julep without mint, and before you start shaking or stirring, you’ve got some muddling to do. That’s when you use an implement of some sort to bruise the leaves and stems of the herb, releasing the juice. Note that we said “bruise”, not “mash the crap out of things until it looks like creamed spinach.” You can use the back of a spoon or the butt end of a rolling pin to muddle, but that brings us back to a poor workman blaming his tools.
Some drinks—think a classic Martini, Wordsmith, or Manhattan—are served straight up, which means you’ve got to keep the ice in the shaker. Enter the cocktail strainer.
There are times when you’re going to use ingredients like basil or a slice of chipotle in your Smash or Margarita to give it an extra flavour kick. A cocktail strainer isn’t going to catch everything, so pick up a small strainer too—unless you enjoy talking to people who keep laughing at your jokes with a piece of basil or chili pepper stuck in their chompers, especially if they have teeth like Gary Busey crossed with an American Mammoth Jackstock donkey.
As with all items here, you don’t technically need an ice-crusher to get the most out of your home-cocktail program. If you’ve got a meat tenderizer and a reuseable shopping bag, have at ’er. But an ice crusher is insanely useful to those who understand that ice is not only one of the most essential ingredients in any cocktail this side of liquor, but also surprisingly versatile. Which is to say, when you’re making a Mint Julep, you want your ice crushed instead of cubed so you’re not drinking what might as well be straight bourbon with a couple of mint sprigs. Don’t forget to check your teeth between sips.