by: Daniel Casto
In addition to basic motor skills and moderate self-control, making cocktails requires some concrete tools and a knowledge of why we use those tools the way we do. That’s why I, a bartender type, am here to help. This article is broken down into lists of stuff you need and don’t need, in varying degrees of needed and not-needed-ness. But before we go shopping, let’s cover some basic rules about what makes cocktails good and bad, as those rules inform many of the choices on this list.
- Rule 1: Ice is your enemy. We’ve all seen Titanic. The minute you shout “ICEBERG” and clunk those cubes into your mixing vessel, you’re a martyred string quartet away from an over-diluted, watery grave. Don’t add your ice until you’re ready to shake or stir, and get the booze off your ice and into your face as soon as it’s ready to do so. Cocktails, like your newly retired parents, start to die the moment they sit still.
- Rule 2: Ice is your friend. Cocktails were born out of utility. Pre-prohibition, there were fewer stringent regulations governing the quality of the quaff, i.e., lots of liquor tasted fucking gnarly. But since getting the hooch down the gullet was still the goal, sugar, bitters, and ice—read: really cold water—became the means to the mood-medicine.
- Rule 3: Your home is not a bar. Bars and restaurants are hallowed environments. You cannot steal or replicate the conviviality of a conversation with a genuine rando, nor can you steal or replicate a professional grade juicer, a walk-in refrigerator, or an ice well. We all know people who try to do this anyway—they can be identified by their arsenal of KichenAid attachments, home immersion circulators, and unholy disregard for the natural order of things. Don’t be one of these people. Just focus on doing the thing you have the means to do in the best and simplest way you can possibly do it.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here is the stuff.
Things you need
Any and all drinks need to be measured accurately. There are a few immensely lauded cocktail bars that rely on free-pouring, but they’re like the Bobby Fischers of staring at a glass and guessing how much is in it. If you are not a prodigious, glass-guessing professional, you need a jigger. Despite being hideous and totally uncool, this is the best one for your home. The thing about using jiggers is that to get truly precise and consistent measurements, you need to be able to fill all the way to the top. You cannot do this because your hands are shaky. I know you think you can; but you can’t. This jigger, however, is larger than you will ever need for a single measure of a cocktail ingredient, and therefore, you never have to fill it to the top—only to the little lines.
Use these for, you guessed it, shaking cocktails! You can use a pint glass for the small end of a Boston shaker situation, but you shouldn’t. When you’re shaking a cocktail, you’re doing three things: chilling, diluting, and making tiny bubbles. You can shake it like a salt shaker, and your drink will chill and dilute and taste basically the way it’s supposed to, but to get the serious, frothy head that you see when you order a daiquiri at a real deal cocktail bar, you need to shake the ever-loving bejesus out of that thing. Shaking with a pint glass makes this difficult because pint glasses are heavy. Also, if the tin slips out of your sweaty palms and flies directly at someone’s face (a thing that has actually happened to me), a metal shaker won’t shatter into a million pieces.
You still need a pint glass, though. This is what you’ll use for stirring drinks like Manhattans and martinis (which are always stirred, because they contain no citrus or other opaque ingredients to be aerated and/or otherwise made frothy). There is no discernible difference in the product you get from stirring in a pint versus stirring in a fancy-pants mixing glass, and for the cost of one fancy-pants mixing glass, which will always break, you can buy virtually everything else on this list.
If you are only stirring cocktails, you only need a Hawthorne strainer. Generally speaking, stirring shouldn’t break the ice up to the point of little chips winding up in your drink. But being an ambitious imbiber, you’re probably looking to shake as well, and when you do shake, you’re going to do it real hard, like we talked about. This is going to result in ice chips that need to be strained out with one of these do-dads, unless you’re into chewing your cocktails and brushing with Sensodyne for the rest of your life.
A Bar Spoon or Chopstick
This is for stirring drinks, which is a whole damn thing that we can talk about in depth later. I’ve interviewed bar managers from Michelin-starred restaurants who didn’t know how to stir a cocktail. It’s a skill that takes a lot of practice, and you should be very proud of yourself if you can master it. That being said, if you’re looking to mix a drink without meditating first, just flip the spoon around and use the handle. A chopstick works fine in a pinch.
Yes, your fridge makes ice, but that ice sucks. Remember the rules? The ice your fridge makes is more janky and chipped than my Corolla’s front bumper, and will therefore dissolve faster, both in your mixing vessel and in your glass. Enter the brutalist Big Cube. Like soviet architecture, it is solid, strong, and utilitarian. Build an Old Fashioned in your glass, plunk one in, and give it a few stirs. Whack three of them into small(ish) pieces for stirring Manhattans in a pint glass. Shake a sour on one for an extra frothy sour to coat your ‘stache.
Hand juicing limes is a really inefficient way to juice, but a great way to make your next handshake feel clammy and gross.
Y-Peeler and Paring knife
Functional garnishes, like twists, contribute immensely towards the finished product of your drink, and thusly I am a big fan. Use a y-peeler to carve yourself a skinny swath of citrus skin, and squeeze it, skin side towards your bev, to release those fragrant oils. From there, you can toss it in your drink, throw it in the garbage with abandon, or fold it into a decorative paper crane. You’ll need a paring knife for lime wedges and the like, but be warned, once you’ve finally figured out exactly how much lime juice to put into a perfectly balanced daiquiri, the last thing you want is your ding-dong friend squeezing a lime wedge into his. That’s why I prefer garnishing with wheels.
Masking Tape and a Sharpie
Presumably you already have these things in your house; but they’re making an appearance here as an excuse to harp on dating perishable ingredients. Vermouth, like most new relationships, goes bad after a month, so mark it when you open it and toss it when its time has passed.
Things You Don’t Need but Are Nice
Grab a few of these if you want to treat yourself.
As we’ve mentioned, Mr. Shaky Hands, it’s a good thing you’re not a surgeon. Pouring a quarter ounce of something directly from a bottle is a tricky, expensive, and invariably sticky operation. Pour spouts help reduce spillage, and even have a little air hole that you can cover up with your thumb to further slow things down.
You know those rubber mats that bars keep in front of service stations? They’re called spill mats, and in addition to advertising for brands most bartenders loathe, they also hold all the drips and drops of liquor that happen during service. They’re less necessary at home because theoretically you’re making fewer cocktails, but they’ll still keep your countertop dry and your mess minimal.
Things You Def Don’t Need
You can skip this stuff.
- Fancy mixing glass: See above. Save that $70 for something you actually need, like a fancy t-shirt with a tiger on it.
- Fancy bar spoon: There are lots of fancy bar spoons. There are spoons that double as muddlers (practical!), spoons with a trident on the end to make you feel like Poseidon (nautical!), and spoons plated in actual gold (WHY). The one linked above costs $5 and works great.
- Moscow Mule Cups: A metal cup does not make your drink that much better.
- Muddler: You have a wooden spoon, don’t you?
- Julep Strainers: They do the same thing as the other strainers you already have.
- Japanese Jiggers: These look nice, but even in professional bar environments, are often used incorrectly. The skinny silhouette allows, theoretically, for a more precise measurement, but also means that whatever you’re jiggering will shoot out with abandon unless you’re exceedingly careful. They’re also designed to be used overhand, which is about as practical as a Tidal subscription.
- Cherries: Cherries are not a functional garnish; they are candy. Go buy candy, it’s delicious!
That’s it for the hardware. Now all you need is an inherently great palate, a professional-grade knowledge of spirits, fortified wines, and liqueurs, and the monastic discipline to healthily foster and perfect a hobby that is also a life-threatening addiction.
Just kidding! Making drinks at home is a safe, cheap way to end a night, and a bomb-ass way to impress just about anybody. Learning more about the products behind bars will make you feel more comfortable in them, and gaining a better understanding of a trade we all participate in will make you a more informed and conscientious customer, and a way cooler cucumber in general. Cheers!