Before you can mix cocktails and other drinks at home, you need a few basic supplies. Most of these tools are available at any specialty kitchenware store. In later articles, I will focus on glassware, spirits, and other supplies and ingredients you need to make good cocktails, but for now, I am only discussing bar tools.
- Shakers. There are two types of shakers available for mixing drinks--the three-piece cocktail shaker and the two-piece Boston shaker.
- You are probably familiar with the three-piece cocktail shaker. Its base is a flat-bottomed metal or glass cone, onto which fits a metal strainer. The strainer is topped off with a metal cap. This type of shaker is useful and elegant, but it can be hard to clean. You might also find that the metal gets so cold after a good shake that the strainer top seizes onto the metal cone. Tapping it against a countertop will sometimes loosen the top, but often you need to wait for the metal to warm up so that it loosens enough for separation.
- For this reason, many people prefer the two-piece Boston shaker. This ordinarily consists of a flat-bottomed metal cone and a mixing glass, although some Boston shakers come with two metal cones. If you have the metal-and-glass variety, the metal cone fits over the top of the mixing glass. You whack the metal cone lightly with the heel of your hand to form a seal, before shaking the drink.
- Strainers. A disadvantage to the Boston shaker is that it doesn't include a built-in strainer, so if you buy a Boston, you'll need to also procure a strainer. Again, there are two types of strainer.
- You've probably seen the Hawthorne strainer hanging from the bar at your local watering hole. The Hawthorne is a flat, perforated metal tool with a wire spring around its perimeter. You generally would use the Hawthorne with the metal cone of the Boston shaker. The spring fits inside the cone, with a pair of metal tabs keeping the Hawthorne from falling into the shaker.
- The second, less common, strainer is the Julep strainer. This is a perforated metal tool that looks a bit like an oversized spoon. It's best to use a Julep strainer when you're pouring drinks from a mixing glass, since the Hawthorne strainer doesn't fit well into most mixing glasses. The Julep strainer doesn't fit atop the glass; rather, you hold it inside the glass to keep the ice from falling into your serving glass.
- Jigger. The type of jigger you're probably familiar with is the style with two metal cones, joined together in an hourglass shape. One cone holds one jigger (1-1/2 ounces) of liquid; the other cone holds one pony (1 ounce) of liquid. I prefer a 2-ounce angled measuring cup, like that made by Oxo. The angled side makes it easy to read from above, and it allows precise measurements of amounts as small as 1/4 ounce.
- Barspoon. Although you can stir cocktails with any long-handled, you'll find that a specialty barspoon works best. The barspoon has a long, twisted shaft that allows you to stir a drink more quickly and easily.
- Paring knife. Useful for preparing fruit for garnishes and juice, a paring knife is an essential tool for the home bar. Although you can use any sharp knife, consider keeping one paring knife dedicated to the drinking arts.
- Cutting board. Also useful for preparing fruit and other drink ingredients. You can use any cutting board for this, but I recommend having one dedicated for this purpose. This way, you'll avoid any "off" odors that may linger on the board after you've prepped onions, garlic, meat, or fish. No one enjoys a garlic-flavored mojito!
- Muddler. A wooden tool shaped somewhat like a small baseball bat, a muddler allows you to crush ingredients in a glass or shaker, gently releasing flavors and oils into the drink.
- Citrus reamer or extractor. Again, you have a number of options here, and it really doesn't matter what type of extractor you use. What's important is that you have a way of extracting fresh juice from citrus fruits. Fresh juice is one of the most important ingredients in cocktail-making, and with a good tool, you can easily squeeze juice on the spot, when you're making a drink.
I personally use a hinged metal citrus squeezer. You use it by cutting the fruit in half, placing one half in the bowl portion, cut side down, and squeezing the handles together to extract the juice.
Although a number of appliance makers offer electric squeezers, these are overkill for daily drink-making, when you only need an ounce or so of juice.
Ice tools--bucket, tongs, crusher. Here's a product category where you can go crazy, buying an expensive bucket, an ice crusher, and an ice shaver. I would skip all of that at first. Get a good bucket and some tongs, for days when you're having company over, or for quick-chilling a bottle of sparkling wine.
Otherwise, if you need crushed ice, place some cubes in a zipper bag and bang the heck out of them with a muddler or a rolling pin. Later, if you're entertaining and you need a lot of crushed ice, you can perhaps invest in an electric ice crusher. For day-to-day drinking, though, it's unnecessary.
I do, however, recommend silicon ice trays. First, they're more durable than the plastic variety and since you'll be using a lot of ice, you'll want something that will stand up to daily use. Second, they make a true cube of ice--a small solid block that holds up well to vigorous shaking and yet chills liquid quickly. Even if your freezer has a built-in icemaker, I still suggest the silicon trays.
Glass or plastic bottles. Many drinks call for simple syrup (a blend of sugar and water cooked on the stove) or other specialty homemade syrups. You might also need to presqueeze juices ahead of time if you're having a party. You'll want to store these in the refrigerator so they don't spoil, and for that reason, it will be good to have some small empty bottles on hand. A capacity of 6-12 ounces will do nicely.
- Other tools. Consider having stirrers, small straws, sipsticks, bar napkins, coasters, and cocktail picks on hand.
Although you can go crazy buying special tools for your home bar (and not to mention vintage barware from online auction sites), I think you'll find that these simple tools are all you'll need as you begin to mix drinks at home.