Thursday, December 11, 2014

Testing the Arctic Chill Muddler with Winter Cocktails

Testing the Arctic Chill Muddler with Winter Cocktails

Barware makers Arctic Chill contacted me about reviewing their cocktail muddler, giving me the perfect opportunity to discuss drinks with muddled ingredients while testing their muddler against the one I've been using. I took them up on the offer and they sent me a muddler to try.

So what is muddling? It's a technique for treating fresh fruit, vegetable and herb ingredients in cocktails to release their juices and oils, allowing the mixing of these "green" ingredients into a drink much faster than doing an infusion or making a syrup.

In The Bar Book, Jeffrey Morgenthaler gives a nice explanation of the two basic muddling techniques. For herbs, the process is gentle: pressing and folding the leaves to release their oils but not mashing them, since that can release chlorophyll, giving the drink an "off" flavor. Muddling pieces of fruit and vegetables involves a little more muscle, pressing down and twisting with the muddler to release juice and oils (like the oils in citrus peel).

Pictured above are the Arctic Chill muddler, along with three other common choices for muddling:
  • Spoon. This is the scrappiest choice. It may work in a pinch, but it doesn't really work well. It's best suited for herbs, where you can press the herbs against the side of the glass using the back of the spoon. It's an awkward motion, since the spoon is rounded. Forget using this tool to muddle fruit or vegetables, as it just doesn't work well. You can't get good leverage muddling fruit against the side of the glass and the blunt edge of a spoon isn't ideal for doing this against the glass' bottom. I'd only try to muddle with a spoon if I didn't have another option.
  • Barspoon. Some bar spoons have a mini muddler built into the end of the spoon. This type of muddler works well for muddling herbs, but not so great with fruits and vegetables, since the small head tends to push the fruit around the glass rather than mash it.
  • Wooden muddler. This is the traditional choice for muddling either herbs or fruits and vegetables. The flat end is the "business" end of the muddler, which you can use to press herbs or mash larger chunks, and it works well for both purposes. 
These varnished wooden muddlers are common but problematic because over time their finish wears off, and guess where it goes...into your drink. Yuck. As you can see, mine has gotten a lot of use. To address this problem, cocktail experts recommend using either an unvarnished wooden muddler or something made of plastic, such as Cocktail Kingdom's Bad Ass Muddler, which sounds cool, but its $14 price tag is significantly higher than the $5 you can pay for a typical wooden one.

Enter the Arctic Chill cocktail muddler. It's listed at the same price as the Bad Ass Muddler, but can be found on Amazon for less (under $10 when I last checked). It has an attractive design, with a curved stainless steel body and a flared black plastic head. It's just over 8 inches long (slightly longer than my wooden muddler, which is exactly 8 inches) and weights 3 1/2 ounces--slightly heavier than my 2 1/2 oz. wooden muddler. Although most muddlers have a smooth head, this one is textured with a waffle pattern. I had some reservations as to how that would affect muddling, particularly with herbs, but wasn't willing to dismiss the muddler without putting it through a few tests. Here's how it stacked up against my wooden muddler in three tests. Read about the tests below, with recipes that follow.

Test one: Fruit

To test how the Arctic Chill performed in muddling fruit, I tested it against pear chunks and lemon slices in the Peary Christmas cocktail. I muddled the pear and lemon together with 10 strokes. Compared to the wooden muddler, the Arctic Chill did a much better job of extracting juice from my fruit. You can see in the photo that the juice line is about twice as far up the glass in the drink muddled with the Arctic Chill vs. the wooden muddler. The latter, having a smaller head, pushed the pear around the glass more than mashed it, so there were more larger unjuiced chunks remaining. Score one for Arctic Chill.

Test two: Herbs, fruit and berries

Here's where it gets interesting. For this winter take on the mojito, I muddled together three different ingredients: delicate mint, juicy lime and fresh cranberries, which are tougher than other berries and thus require more muscle to muddle. Given this larger and more varied mix of ingredients, they required more muddling, about 20 strokes, until I was satisfied. Again, the Arctic Chill did a better job of breaking down the fruit chunks and even managed to smash the cranberries well. I did, however, see a few broken pieces of mint in the drink, which was a concern. The drink tasted fine, but, as discussed, torn mint can be a problem in some drinks. However, I also noticed torn mint in the drink made with the wooden muddler, which makes me think it's possible that the mixture of ingredients, especially the cranberries, could have contributed to tearing the mint. A third test was in order.

Test three: Herbs only

For this final test, I used the Arctic Chill to muddle a handful of fresh mint leaves in a glass with a little simple syrup. Adding syrup when muddling herbs helps ensure the flavor ends up in your drink--otherwise the extracted oils tend to just coat your muddler. For this test, I used a more gentle muddling motion of just pressing down on the herbs, rather than the "press-and-twist" used in the previous tests. After about 10 to 12 pressings I could smell the mint, so I stopped, mixed in a little soda and tasted the results. They were really good: minty fresh and not bitter. And even better, while the leaves were nicely pressed, they weren't torn.

Results: I was pleased with the Arctic Chill and plan on using it from now on as my primary cocktail muddler. Immediate below are recipes for two cocktails I made from tests 1 and 2. And further below are recipes for other cocktails with muddled ingredients.

Peary Christmas Cocktail

Peary Christmas

With thanks to Washington Post spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan for giving me an idea for this drink during a recent Free Range on Food chat.

Makes 2 drinks

1 bosc pear, peeled, seeded and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
3 lemon slices (1/4-inch thick), halved
1 oz. cinnamon syrup (see recipe below)
3 oz. rye whiskey
4 dashes angostura bitters
Ginger beer
Lemon wheels (garnish)

Add the pear pieces and lemon slices to a highball glass and muddle to juice the fruit. Add cinnamon syrup, whiskey and angostura bitters. Fill the glass with ice, then top with ginger beer. Stir or swizzle the drink to combine. Garnish with lemon wheel.

Winter Mojito

1 tbsp. fresh cranberries (8 to 10 berries)
2 tbsp. fresh spearmint leaves
1/2 lime, cut into quarters
1 1/2 oz. dark rum
1/2 oz. honey syrup (see below)
2 dashes Fee Brothers whiskey-barrel-aged bitters
Club soda
Mint sprig garnish

Add the cranberries, mint and lime quarters to a rocks glass and muddle to juice the fruit and release the mint's oils. Add rum and bitters and fill the glass with ice. Top the class with club soda and stir or swizzle the drink to combine. Garnish with mint sprig.

Note: To make honey syrup, stir together equal portions of hot (not boiling, just tap hot) water and honey. Allow to cool.

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