I am by no means an equipment junkie, but there are obviously certain tools one cannot do without. It might be surprising to learn that it doesn’t cost a lot to outfit yourself for the vast majority of cocktails. I’ve recently tried my hand at molecular cocktails, which requires a new level of bartools and ingredients. For regular cocktails, however, you can get by with the following:
Three Piece (Cobbler) Shaker. I almost exclusively use three piece cocktail shakers to mix drinks at this point. I was lucky enough to visit Kazuo Uyeda’s Tender Bar in Tokyo, as well as the famous High Five Bar, and bartenders at both use only three piece cocktail shakers to shake cocktails. They believe the Boston shaker adds too much space to the shake, meaning the drink is not in contact with the ice for enough of the shake. Their cocktail shakers are actually pretty small and meant to keep the ice in contact with the drink for one or two drinks at a time. Uyeda feels pretty strongly about it, and explained his feelings in detail to me through a friend who speaks Japanese. He shakes very vigorously and then jerks the shaker as he pours. He’s kind of patented the term the hard shake. Check out the details in his amazing book called Cocktail Techniques.
Besides the beautiful copper and brass Japanese shakers I own, I have both a medium size for 3-4 drinks and a giant shaker for up to six drinks. I also own single shaker for when I’m on my own. For the really big shakers, one normally has to use a funnel to pour as I find them really messy. I have a couple of antique shakers as well, which are more for show than function these days. I know a number of people who collect them.
Stainless Steel 18-28 Shaker Tins (a variation of the Boston shaker). When I use a Boston shaker, it’s always the stainless steel 18-28 set versions. It’s very important to be able to feel the temperature of the liquids inside and as a result, I would avoid glass components for both stirring and shaking. That said, glass is a better insulator of temperature than steel, meaning the vessel will have less effect on thermoregulation. I have a couple of Yarai mixing glasses but rarely use them. They’re expensive and prevent you from knowing when your drink is cold enough. I realize a lot of people would disagree but stir a Manhattan with both and see for yourself which method allows for greater temperature control. The pros know exactly how long they have to stir a Manhattan as they use the same ice and chilled vessels each of the million times they make the drink. They therefore use glass vessels because of their insulating advantages. For the more casual, I think it makes more sense to be very aware of the temperature of the drink as you stir or shake. Most important, however, is that all shaking and stirring vessels are kept in the freezer and used cold.
Hawthorne or Julep Strainer. It’s basically impossible to mix drinks without either a Hawthorne or julep strainer. The concept is simple but very effective at straining ice and large material. I’m not overly picky in this regard, and use a simple, inexpensive Hawthorne model.
Fine Cone Strainer. Muddled cocktails or cocktails in which smaller fragments must be removed will require a fine strainer. I bought long handled strainers at Tap Phong in Toronto’s Chinatown and then ground off the handles with a Dremel so they can sit on a glass without tipping over. Buy a bunch because if you’re making four drinks at one time, it’s easier to plop a fine strainer over each glass as you pour.
Foodsaver System. I can’t say enough about this product from a cocktail perspective. This was an idea I came up with all on my own. I use the vacuum sealer to store ice (more on that in the Ice section) and the bottle adaptors to seal all sherries, vermouths, aperitifs, etc. that don’t last long once opened. You will make back the cost of the system with one saved bottle of Cocchi and one Carpano Antica.
PrivatE PreservE. Canned gases such as PrivatE PreservE sprayed on the top of vermouths and sherries decanted into smaller bottles is another great way of making full use of fortified wines. This product can be purchased at the LCBO and is easy to use.
Barspoon. Barspoons come in all shapes and sizes. Because stirring occurs with the opposite end of the spoon, choose a barspoon with some decent weight on the end. I prefer the teardrop, extra long Japanese design myself. A barspoon is supposed to be equivalent to 1 tsp but don’t count on it, as they’re all very different.
Muddler. A muddler is basically a blunt instrument used to smash ingredients in order to release flavour. They are available in many materials, from metal to ceramic to wood, stainless, plastic and even bamboo. I own wooden muddlers because I like the way they feel. Make sure your muddler is more than long enough to extend past the edge of the vessel in which you plan to do your muddling. If not, you will cut your hand on the edge of the vessel as you smash. I own a couple of different lengths in order to accommodate larger and smaller mixing vessels. The larger ones I purchased as wooden pestles in Chinatown. Lastly, on muddling, the idea is to be gentle and not overdo it. Muddled herbs, for example, should be bruised, not mushed into a bitter paste.
Citrus Peeler. I use the simple and inexpensive Kuhn Ricon peelers as I find they give the best depth of peel. Oxo makes a great peeler as well but the depth is quite shallow, which is fine if you don’t want any of the bitter pith. The more citrus pith included, the bitterer the peel. Most drinks call for no pith so be sure to choose a peeler that does not cut too deep.
Paring Knife. I think most people know by now that Kuhn Ricon pairing knives are where it’s at. The multitude of funky colours doesn’t hurt either. Once you use one, you will never want to use anything else. The Tanaka by Kin Knives from Japan is also world renown. A knife, of course, is only as good as it is sharp, which comes down to your sharpening system.
Measuring Spoon Set. A teaspoon set that includes 1/8th of a teaspoon is often needed to make cocktails. The 1/8, 1/16 and 1/32 teaspoon sets are easily available on Amazon.
Oxo Cups. I chose the stainless version of this product over the available plastic. The cups have angled measurement graduations visible from above, meaning accurate and flexible measurement is extremely easy. I recently tested them against a graduated cylinder, however, and found they’re more or less totally inaccurate, which was a big bummer considering how much I’d loved them. I’ve read the same elsewhere.
Jiggers. Once I started using Oxo cups, I pretty much dust balled my collection of jiggers, that was until I determined the Oxo cups weren’t accurate. Now I don’t know what to do. Jiggers allow for a faster pour but, unlike bartenders, I’m never in a hurry.
Lemon/Lime Citrus Press & Orange Citrus Press. There is no easier way to extract citrus than via a citrus hand press. It’s quick and the seeds are contained. I’m now using the Fresh Force Citrus Juicer which uses a levered hinge and claims to squeeze 25% more juice.
Electric Citrus Juicer. An electric citrus juicer is critical if you’re planning to do a lot of fruit at one time. The electric models eventually pay for themselves by extracting more juice from each piece of fruit than any method by hand. Spend the money on a good model (the Waring Pro is a great model) as I’ve already broken a number of the cheap products. I know others who have invested in good quality tabletop fruit presses but I still think the electric press for large batches and the handheld press for individual fruit is the way to go.
Spice Grater. Freshly ground nutmeg, cinnamon and dark chocolate are essential in many drinks.
Egg Separator. I started out using one of these but quickly reverted to using the shell to separate the white from the yolk. Many drinks call for egg white so you will need to consider whether you require a separator.
Ice Molds. I own a variety of ice molds, including a Lego figurine mold my son bought me. Once I started using spherical cubes, I’ve barely looked at the others. Ice spheres fit in glasses perfectly and melt very slowly. The cube versions are tougher to get into different glasses. If you’re really hard core and want to chip your own spheres from block ice, you will need an ice pick and bandage material for when you inevitably stab yourself.
Ice Crusher. Unless your refrigerator crushes ice for you, I would highly recommend investing in a Waring Professional tabletop ice crusher. They work well and are reliable. Bashing ice in a bag with a hammer is a disaster.
Blender and/or Hand Blender. There are obviously many cocktails, especially fruity summer drinks, that must be blended. Vita-Mix are the only blenders worth purchasing and are found on nearly every bar in the world.
Mason Jars & Lids. You can find mason jars at any major grocery store, especially around the main canning period in autumn. Canadian Tire in Canada always stock them.
Syrup Bottles. You can get these soft, plastic bottles at professional kitchen stores or online at BYOBTO.com or CocktailKingdom.com. I usually buy them twelve at a time.
Dasher bottles, which are also handy to have, are normally made from glass and are therefore different than those described above.
Garnish Picks. These come in all varieties and can be made from bamboo, wood, metal and plastic. I have some beautiful metal picks for Martini olives, disposable bamboo picks from Chinatown and loads of the plastic swords for fruit in tropical drinks. Be sure to have two different lengths as short picks used in coupes and Martini glasses will not work in a Collins or Hurricane glass.
Punch Bowl, Ladle & Cups. Serving an iced punch in summer or a heated spicy punch in winter to a large group is incredibly satisfying. Punches have made a huge come back and, obviously, you can’t serve punch without a punch bowl. I bought mine at a flea market for $5. Modern punch bowls can be found at many of the kitchen supply stores.
Copper Jello Mold. For chilled punches, you will need a smallish jello mold or bundt pan in order to make an ice ring for the punch. Ice cubes in a punch that sit for hours melt too fast and dilute the punch. I bought mine at a flea market for fifty cents. Lay sliced citrus at the bottom of the mold, partially fill with crushed ice (to keep the citrus on the bottom) and then completely fill with water. Freeze and when needed, run a small amount of hot water in order to remove the ice from the mold.
Mini Clothes Pins. I first experienced these in NYC and realized that clipping garnish, especially citrus peel, to the rim of the glass allows the drinker to take a strong whiff of citrus oil with each sip. Genius.
Atomizer. Keep a few of these around in order to spray the surface of cocktails or the glass itself before pouring. Any kind of small spray bottle will also work.
Swizzle Stick. Originally made from the swizzlestick tree in the Lesser Antilles, you can now find plastic and metal versions. I own one but rarely use it, probably because I don’t make swizzles very often.
Martini Carafes. I first encountered the idea of pouring martini gin only a bit at a time at HPS bar in Amsterdam. A very small carafe set in a larger glass of crushed ice means the gin stays cold while you drink. That said, I drink martinis fast, as they should be.
Digital Scale. Though not essential by any means, having an accurate digital scale comes in handy. Be sure to purchase one with at least 0.1 g accuracy, anything less accurate is useless for cocktail-making. I use mine mostly for attempts at molecular cocktails but have found them useful for some European recipes that, oddly, call for ingredients in grams. I’ve only been able to find the 0.1g scales online (don’t even bother driving around to Staples, Canadian Tire and Walmart stores like I did). They run around $35 and in Canada can be found at www.canadianweigh.com.
Funnels. A set of nesting stainless funnels are pretty important at different stages of cocktail-making, especially when pouring from a large mixer if making a batch of something.
Fast Pourers. You’d have to be pouring a lot of drinks to justify taking caps off your liquor and replacing them with this bar staple. If you do feel the need to do so, purchase fast pourers with a long, metal spout over the short stubby plastic version. I bought one but use it in a fancy bottle for dish soap.
Glass Rimmer. I realize there are lots of ways to rim glass with salt or sugar but I find the stainless tool designed for the purpose the simplest. A saucer works as well.
Dropper Bottle. From time to time, one will require a dropper bottle. As a veterinarian with my own pharmacy, they are easy to come by. Active Surplus on Queen Street in downtown Toronto sells them as well, as does both BYOBTO.com and CocktailKingdom.com.
Yama Coffee Siphon. I’m not a huge fan of hot cocktails, but am learning to better appreciate their qualities, especially on a snowy night by the fire. If you like them, consider investing in a siphon as they really do an amazing job at infusing spirits with botanicals. It also makes for a great conversation as the liquids rise and fall with the heat of the flame. That said, be careful not to over-infuse, especially if you’re using citrus peel, as the cocktail will end up bitter and undrinkable.
Feuerzangenbowle. This is essentially a funky mulled wine maker. I got one for Christmas more as a lark than anything, but after trying out the enclosed recipe, I was instantly converted. The flaming brick of sugar that’s been soaked in overproof rum makes for quite the pyrotechnic display as well.
Pastry Torch. I use this awesome gizmo to char hickory shavings to smoke cocktails under bell jars, a la Frankie Solarik from Barchef. Once you’ve had a hickory-smoked Manhattan, the regular version will never taste the same. It’s obviously not essential but a lot of fun.
Bell Jar. These are actually tough to find. I ended up buying mine out of some guy’s trunk via eBay in Toronto. I learned the technique from Frankie Solarik at Barchef, and nothing works better to infuse scent into a drink (other than maybe a smoker gun, see below). Once you’ve made the drink, sit the glass in the bell jar for a few minutes with whatever scent you’re working with (I use charred and smoking hickory chips). Serve immediately by removing the bell jar in front of your guest. The result is pretty astounding. Incidentally, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is one of my all-time favourite novels.
Absinthe Fountain & Absinthe Spoons. Absinthe was one of my first interests in the world of cocktails. I loaded up on different absinthes and eventually purchased a fountain online. What I didn’t realize at the time is that drinking absinthe from a fountain gets you hammered very quickly, and a significant portion of the drinking world find the anise-based flavour of the liqueur totally disgusting. So, as a result, I don’t use mine often. Despite all that, with the right group and after a meal on a hot day, the whole ancient process of the absinthe fountain can be a lot of fun. The fountain is filled with ice water and then absinthe glasses are lined up at the base of each spigot. The glasses have a ball at the bottom which should be filled with absinthe. An absinthe spoon is placed over the glass and, traditionally is topped with a sugar cube. The spigot is then opened so that the ice water gently drips through the sugar cube into the absinthe, eventually creating the characteristic louche effect. I think the idea is to add at least 1:1 or 2:1 of water to absinthe, depending on taste. My understanding that at 70%, absinthe is dangerous to drink straight.
Juicer. I own a decent Omega juicer but I existed without one for a long time. I mainly use it to extract pineapple, carrot, passion fruit, ginger and celery juices. Fresh juices are obviously far, far superior to the canned versions. I probably should’ve got one earlier. You can find good deals on good juicers on sites like Kijiji and Craigslist.
Smoker Gun. I made this for next to nothing by following the steps listed at: http://sciencefare.org/2011/11/03/diy-gun-cold-smoker/. It’s fun and adds a smokey flavour to a Manhattan but, truthfully, I found using wood chips and a bell jar did a better job and is more of a pleasing visual spectacle.