Some wonderful things can be made entirely with your hands. Others — including fantastic cocktails — require tools. The topic for this week’s edition of Kitchen Tech is bar tools, specifically the ones necessary to make restaurant-caliber cocktails at home. Not just any restaurant and cocktails, mind you: we’re talking about making the very best cocktails from leading restaurants across the world.
Ready for the surprise? These tools aren’t crazy expensive. They’re actually some of the most affordable we’ve covered in Kitchen Tech, even though most of our choices are endorsed by top bartenders inside and outside the United States. Inside, you’ll find over a dozen different types of tools I’ve personally tested and found worthy of recommending, along with a few tips on why I didn’t pick some other options.
The Best Bar Tools: Fundamentals
Citrus Peelers. This is a rare category where my top pick is different from what pro bartenders have recommended. Peeling fresh citrus is critically important in making modern cocktails, and there are many tools for turning a lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit rind into a beautiful decoration with a powerful scent.
But while bartenders, including some I deeply respect, love the inexpensive Kuhn Rikon Peeler ($10 for 3), I’ve found the blades to be difficult to clean and prone to discoloring fruit during the slicing process. I’ve been very happy with an OXO Good Grips Pro Swivel Peeler ($13) for similarly large-sized peeling. The Oxo Good Grips Lemon Zester ($8) and WMF Profi Plus Channel Knife ($20) are good at making thinner, spiral peels, which are fancier but easier to screw up.
Measuring Cups. Serious bartenders hate “free pouring” – haphazard guesstimation of liquids poured into a shaker or mixing glass — because the results are unpredictable from drink to drink. It’s so easy and cheap to do things right: just buy a measuring cup. Our long-time favorite is OXO’s Good Grips Angled Measuring Cup ($5), which lets you measure up to 2 ounces of liquid in 1/4 ounce increments. They’re so cheap that we bought four, so one’s always handy when others are being washed. But if you want to follow the pros, go for RSVP’s tall 1-ounce/2-ounce metal Double Jigger ($9). With some practice, you’ll be able to get close to completely accurate measures with a fancier-looking tool. (I’d go with OXO, but it’s your call.)
Ice Cube Tray. Like the magical ice balls we covered in our first Kitchen Tech article, big ice cubes are critical in chilling drinks without diluting them. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to make 2″ cubes than spheres: silicone rubber trays work perfectly. Normally, I would point towards Cocktail Kingdom, which makes and sells some outstanding bar tools. But as much as I love most of their products, their ice cube trays feel flimsy. Tovolo makes a number of different trays that do a much better job of holding their shape. I own three of Tovolo’s $8 King Cube Ice Trays, which have lasted for years, even though they’re some of the most frequently-used bar tools in my collection.
Shaker and Strainer. There’s no such thing as a perfect shaker. Great bartenders debate the pros and cons of the glass-and-metal Boston Shaker versus the all-metal Cobbler Shaker, and I’ve used both, as well as multiple types of the latter. After testing, I strongly disagree with recommendations I’ve seen online of the Oggi Marilyn Tall & Slim shaker. Yes, $22 is cheap, and the shaker seems nice the first two times you use it, but it’s flimsy and doesn’t wash well, holding water inside its cap. You don’t want to cheap out on a shaker, because it can fall apart, dent, or spill drinks all over the place if made poorly. So my pick is the Rosle 12650 Shaker, which is around $50 if you can find it online. The 18/10 stainless steel is heavier, which makes it more durable, attractive, and effective at chilling even if you’re shaking with warm hands. It also has a strainer built into its top, which is good enough for making many types of drinks, and is designed to be easy to open.
Next-level straining is accomplished using a tool called a Hawthorne strainer. You can get a basic one with a coil like the one shown here pretty much anywhere; this is a $5 Swissmar version. But genius bartender Don Lee developed a better $15 version called Koriko Hawthorne for Cocktail Kingdom (shown above). It’s heavy, not super-expensive, and achieves the sort of quick fine straining you’ll want if you’ve been muddling leaves, vigorously shaking ice until it chips, or using other solid ingredients that really shouldn’t make their way into the glass. Pro bartenders are shifting to the Koriko Hawthorne, and so am I; the only challenge is getting the color you want, because the common silver one has been sold out. The gold one for $10 more is easier to find.
The Best Bar Tools: Good Ideas
Citrus Squeezes and Microplaners. The only thing more important in modern cocktailing than peeling a piece of citrus is turning it into fresh juice on the spot. While you can do this without a tool if you’re making one or two drinks, hand squeezer tools are the most efficient for doing so repeatedly and extracting the most juice. The $12 version from Amco in this photo was purchased without the benefit of bartender wisdom: citrus acids quickly peel away the paint on a squeezer. So follow their advice and go for this $20 Norpro model, a stainless steel version with no paint, and avoid the discoloration and cleaning challenges of the one I use.
A Microplane Classic Zester/Grater ($15 or less) is arguably an advanced bar tool, even though it’s super easy to use. It’s just a particularly handy type of grater that makes very thin shavings of whatever you rub against it. I don’t see it used too often in North America, but in Spain, it’s a tool of choice for bringing atypically strong citrus scents into drinks. I now use this often, and recommend it strongly for both drink and food applications.
Thermometer. I learned a secret to completely blowing people away with martinis when I visited Derek Brown’s Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. a few years ago: temperature really, really matters in making a drink silky smooth. Derek’s ideal temperature for a dry martini is a degree north or south of 30 Fahrenheit, achievable because alcohol doesn’t freeze at 32 degrees like water. There are different thermometers you can use for this, and some people would reasonably insist on a metal submersible such as Cocktail Kingdom’s $30 Thermometer Spoon (shown above).
My suggestion would be an infrared thermometer such as the $43 Arctic Star AR550 (or its sequel, named Fluke 62 Max), which I bought primarily for use with food. It’s more expensive, and it’s not ideal for core temperature measurement, but it’s fast, clean, and gives you a quick sense of whether you’re close to a perfect chill. Then you can also use it for cooking, as I do, and love it for different reasons.
Muddlers. Some recipes, including the classic Cuban favorite Mojito, seriously benefit from macerating leaves, citrus, and/or sweeteners in the shaker or mixing glass. Muddlers release essential oils and flavors trapped within ingredients, deepening what might otherwise be only hints of mint, lime, or sugar. Pro bartenders strongly recommend the Cocktail Kingdom’s Bad Ass Muddler ($13), a thoroughly unimpressive-looking bar of plastic that promises to mash ingredients into a pulp. If you ignore their advice (and mine), instead opting for a steel wand with a hard plastic tip like the Rosle Fruit Muddler ($22) here, you’ll probably find yourself working to scrape underprocessed bits out of the edges of your strainer or mixing glass. Go with the plastic muddler — it’s ugly, but it works.
Super Strainers. The Koriko Hawthrone discussed above is enough for most recipes, but there are occasionally times — typically when making drinks using strawberries, raspberries, or preserves — when you’ll really wish you had something to keep all of the seeds out of your drink while keeping all of the color and flavor. My advice is to get a conical fine strainer with a mesh closer to the first of the two options shown here. If you choose too fine of a strainer, you’ll trap almost everything, including your drink, unless you keep scraping out the mesh with a spoon. Pick too coarse of a strainer and you mightn’t get any benefit from using it, at all. RSVP’s Endurance Conical Strainer is in the middle, and sells for $12. Go with it.
Soda Siphon. Club soda — also known as seltzer — is carbonated water. That’s water infused with carbon dioxide. You can keep buying bottled club soda from a store, or just refill a seltzer bottle with your own water (preferably filtered) using carbon dioxide chargers. I’m honestly torn on which solution is better for the home bartender as a solution purely for cocktails, but would generally recommend the iSi Soda Siphon ($46-$53) and a 20-pack of Leland Soda Chargers ($22). They’re easy to use and iSi products are pro-grade durable; the Siphon can also be used for cool avant-garde cooking tricks such as carbonating fruit. The only hiccup is that siphon carbonation isn’t as predictable as what you’ll get from bottled club soda; if the water and gas aren’t mixed right, you may get a rush of bubbles or a stream of flat water when mixing. Consider this one a “maybe” unless you want to play with it a bit.
Part 2 of the Best Bar Tools edition of Kitchen Tech deals with “the Fancy Stuff,” and can now be read here. You can also catch up on our earlier Kitchen Tech columns.