|Cocktail mixing glass with julep strainer and barspoon.
This is the first in a series of three posts on stocking your home bar for 2015 Summer Cocktails Week. See Part 2 on bottles.
Learning to make cocktails at home is a great thing. It's more affordable than buying drinks at a bar, you control the quality of your drink, and it impresses your friends. Plus, it's just fun. The making of good cocktails with quality ingredients--sometimes referred to as the craft cocktail movement--has sparked interest in the craft of cocktails unseen since the pre-Prohibition heyday of cocktails. Old recipes are being revived, new recipes are being created, long-gone spirits are being revived, "craft" distillers are trying new things with their "small-batch" offerings (the word "craft" gets thrown around a lot in this space). If you like good drinks, it's a great time to be drinking. So why not get in on the making as well?
To make cocktails at home requires a few essentials: the tools to make the drinks, the glassware to serve them in, the ingredients to create them and the recipes that tell you how. There's also, importantly, the techniques for doing it well. I won't cover technique specifically, but when I get to the recipes part, don't ignore the portions of good cocktail books that cover techniques, as reading them is a great way to learn.
Today, I'm going to cover barware. Some of these things are more essential than others; some are more about preferences. I'll do my best to explain those issues as I go along.
|Left: bullet-style Cobbler shaker. Middle: glass-and-metal Boston shaker. Right: tin-on-tin Boston shaker. Bottom: hawthorne strainer.
Some cocktails are built in the glass they are drunk from, but the majority are either shaken or stirred. While you can stir a drink in any ol' glass, to shake a drink you really need a proper shaker. There are two make styles: the Cobbler and the Boston. The cobbler shaker is, at first blush, easier to use. Cobbler shakers consist of a large cup, a top with a built-in strainer, and a small lid that covers the strainer while shaking. To use, simple add the ingredients, fill with ice, cap, shake until very cold, remove the cap and strain the drink into the glass. The downside of the cobbler is that cap. If it's not a good one, it can leak, and if, like mine, the cap fits inside the top, it can get stuck as the top contracts due to cold and be hard to remove.
That's why I prefer the Boston shaker, which I use almost exclusively these days for shaking drinks. The Boston shaker consists of a large metal cup and either a glass (usually a pint glass) or another smaller metal cup. To use it, mix the ingredients in the smaller cup, add ice, invert the larger cup over the smaller one. Give two firm taps to seal the larger cup over the smaller one, invert the whole thing so the smaller cup is on top (give it another firm tap if you want, just in case) and shake. When done, you have to unseal the shaker, then use a separate strainer, like a hawthorne strainer, to strain the drink into a glass.
The metal-and-glass Boston shaker is classic, but I prefer an all-metal version, referred to as "tin on tin." Getting a seal with two metal cups is easier, as the metal is flexible. Two firm taps with your palm against the bottom of the metal cup is usually enough to get it to seal over the glass, but not always, and you have to be careful not to break the glass. Getting the metal-and-glass shaker apart can also be challenging, usually requiring a sharp "hit" to the side to break the seal. The tin-on-tin Boston shaker seals easily with two firm palm taps and can usually be unsealed just by twisting and pulling the smaller cup. Having two metal pieces also chills the drink faster, since metal chills faster than glass. Whatever you get, I definitely recommend not getting a Boston shaker where the glass has a rubber rim around it. I find this actually doesn't seal very well. I used to have one of these and more often than not made a terrible mess when I tried to shake with it. With the tin-on-tin Boston shaker, I've never had a problem making a good seal. The larger cup should be 28 to 30 ounces; the smaller, 16 to 18 ounces.
For drinks that are stirred, I recommend getting a cocktail mixing glass. Sure, you can use any ol' glass (and any ol' spoon), but a proper cocktail mixing glass (and proper barspoon for stirring) are fantastic tools to get the job done well. Mixing glasses come in different sizes. Mine is 550 ml, which is ideal for mixing one or two drinks. A lot of them are named by their designs, such as Yarai, a criss-cross pattern, or Paddle, vertical tapered grooves. To use a mixing glass, add ingredients and fill with ice. Stir until very cold (you want to stir a lot, like 50 times or more, as you're not just mixing the ingredients together but also chilling and diluting them). Strain with a julep strainer (like a big spoon with holes) into your glass.
Why the two strainers? Hawthorne strainers are sized to fit nicely inside the mouth of a mixing cup and have a tight coil around the edge that catches seeds and other small particles that might be in your drink. Drinks mixed in a stirring glass don't tend to have such particles (a mixing glass is used for drinks that are only alcohol, like a Martini or a Manhattan) and the pouring lip and larger opening can make using a hawthorne awkward, hence the julep strainer. If you bought only one, Id saw get a hawthorne, because it will work in a mixing glass, it's just not ideal.
|Left: three sizes of jiggers. Right: two sizes of graduated measuring glasses.
Cocktail recipes are mostly written with exact measurements, usually in ounces or fractions thereof, as well as sometimes teaspoons for small amounts. "Free-pouring," the art of "eye-balling" those amounts is very difficult to do with any reasonable precision. I don't recommend it. Instead, invest in some measuring equipment. Jiggers are a traditional choice. They are little metal cups that come in preset amounts. Usually they are sold as two joined together, so you get a 1 and 2 oz jigger, for example. Bartenders use jiggers because they are easy: so long as you pick up the right one, just fill to the rim for the amount needed. But I don't really like them. I find them messy to pour from and they aren't useful for uneven measurements--like if you're doubling or halving a recipe. Instead, I prefer graduated measuring glasses. My favorite one is the larger 5-oz. one pictured above, which has multiples types of measurements (ounces is the most common in America).
|Left: citrus press. Right: Microplane zester/grater.
Citrus press. Now I've moved beyond the essential tools to other things that I think are very useful. I am almost tempted to say a citrus juicer is essential. I know that you can squeeze lemons and limes with other tools, including just your hands, but a citrus press makes the process so much easier and cleaner that it's hard to say "no" to one of these. And citrus is very common to cocktail-making. If you make very many drinks with lemon or lime juice (Margaritas, for example), you'll enjoy having one.
Microplane zester/grater. This is less essential but really useful for things like grating fresh nutmeg over a Spanish Coffee.
|Top: ISI Cream Whipper. Bottom (left to right): swizzle stick, muddler, paring knife, peeler, channel knife, wine opener and churchkey.
Swizzle stick. There are some plastic stirrers marketed as swizzle sticks, but the real deal is a spiked branch from the quararibea turbinata tree used to stir a class of drinks known as swizzles by twirling the stick in the drink. See The Theory of Everything cocktail.
Muddler. Muddlers are used for crushing herbs, citrus and vegetable bits to release their flavor into drinks. They are often wooden, although I reviewed a metal-and-plastic one last year that I rather liked. They are useful for a lot of drinks, the most popular of which is probably the Mojito.
Paring knife. Essential for things like cutting citrus and fruit. The good news is that you probably already have one.
Vegetable peeler. Useful for making thin garnishes, like the apple peel spiral in the Deluxe Appletini.
Channel knife. This is for cutting twists, such as lemon twists, for garnishing. Although it works well for that, you can also make a nice twist by first using a vegetable peeler to peel off a good chunk and then neatening up the sides with a paring knife. In some ways, I prefer that method, as you can make the twist a little wider, and thus less likely to break when you twist it.
Wine opener. Obviously essential for wine, and wine sometimes goes in cocktails, so you better have one.
Churchkey. One end pierces cans, the other opens bottles. You're probably already familiar with this (although maybe didn't know that it's called a "churchkey").
|Lewis bag and ice mallet.
Some other useful things: A fish-mesh sieve, good for double-straining cocktails; measuring spoons, for small measurements.
Glassware is part of the fun of cocktail culture. Sure, you could serve any drink in any glass, but having the right glass is part of what makes a cocktail special. That said, I understand that you probably won't be buying all the right glassware. I'd love to have the proper cups for Mint Juleps and Moscow Mules, for example. But a decent selection of glassware will give you enough variety to keep things interesting.
|Left-to-right: coupe, cocktail, flute, and three styles of wine glasses.
Cocktail: Also for smaller drinks (i.e. the ones without a lot, if any, mixers), this is the more fashionable cousin to the coupe with its conical shape. Some call this a martini glass, but if you've been schooled by Neil of My Poor Liver Podcast, you know that's a misnomer (a martini is just one of many types of cocktails that you can serve in this glass). Although lovely, they are easier to spill than a coupe.
Flute: Perfect for champagne, and thus champagne/sparkling-wine cocktails like The Amour.
Wineglasses: These are good to have for wine, obviously, but can also work for cocktails if you are missing specialty pieces. A frozen margarita, for example, tastes great from a wineglass.
|Left-to-right: shooter, rocks/lowball/old-fashioned, pint, highball, collins, margarita and
Rocks glass: Also called a lowball or old-fashioned, this is an idea glass for a wide variety of cocktails, especially those served with ice. I use this for so many drinks.
Pint glass: generally used for beer, but can also be used for larger cocktails.
Highball: This is idea for larger cocktails, especially those named for the glass--the sort of lower-alcohol drink that is refreshing during summer, like The Kristin.
Collins: A collins glass is even taller and skinner than a highball. Of course, it's a typical choice for a Tom Collins or a variation like the Kickin' Cucumber Collins.
Margarita: Margaritas can easily be served in other glasses. I often serve them in rocks glasses. But it can be fun to break out these glasses for drinks like the Margarita on Fire.
Tempered coffee mug. This glass is tempered for hot drinks. Although meant for Cappuccino, it's great for hot cocktails (like a Smoky Tea Toddy).
Where to buy: Cocktail Kingdom is a fantastic site for good-quality barware, including hard-to-find items. For more conventional tools, often at cheaper prices, there is Amazon. I picked up my shaking tins and jiggers at a restaurant supply store in Manhattan. Liquor stores will often stock equipment for making cocktails.
Did I leave anything off? Any questions about using these tools? Let's discuss in the comments below.
Drinks mentioned in this post
Dry Gin Martini
The J.R. Shot
Kickin' Cucumber Collins
Margarita on Fire
Smoky Tea Toddy
Spring Fresh Cocktail
The Theory of Everything
Stocking Your Bar: Bottles