Today’s bar essentials: as the art of the cocktail becomes more sophisticated, the bar tool box gets an update
“You can make a drink, or you can craft an experience,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, the prominent beverage consultant also known as The Modern Mixologist. “But to craft an experience, you need the proper tools.”
While professional chefs have “tool” kits–good knives, favorite tongs, brushes, and more, says Abou-Ganim, “a lot of bartenders are used to using whatever tools are available to them at the bar.” To remedy that, Abou-Ganim recently began marketing his TAG Bar Tools line to provide today’s bartenders with a tool kit similar in quality to those of top chefs.
“But times are changing,” adds Ryan Magarian, professional mixologist behind Liquid Kitchen beverage consulting in Seattle. “Chains are beginning to understand that the bar should be an intrinsic part of the concept’s overall culinary experience.” And as the culture for cocktail excellence grows, beverage professionals are becoming much more savvy and choosy about the tools they use to enhance both the beverage and bar experience.
So, what’s the well dressed bar wearing? “First and foremost, a good quality Boston shaker,” says Kathy Casey of Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle. Boston shakers, which consist of a pint glass and tin, have advantages over the three-piece, solid metal shakers with the built-in strainers and jigger tops, according to Casey. “The three-piece shakers tend to stick and when you do get them apart, it’s abrupt and you spill,” she says.
Adam Seger, noted bar chef and general manager of Nacional 27, in Chicago, agrees. “I like a really heavy-duty glass pint and tin, and I actually like a pint that’s marked with ounces.”
Magarian gets even more specific. “The best tin I’ve found is the Vollrath 30-ounce. It forms a tight seal, but pops apart from any standard pint easily every time.” Magarian adds that shakers that stick and spill can ruin a bartender’s confidence–he or she might avoid using them as a result. Abou-Ganim agrees, “Do not spend $1.99 on a tin; it’s like a chef buying knives at the discount store.”
Next up, muddlers. Until recently, muddlers hadn’t changed much in 20 years–they were still dyed, lacquered, too short, too narrow and made of soft wood, writes Dave Nepove on his web site, www.mistermojito.com. “Varnish and dyes are no-no’s,” says Abou-Ganim, whose TAG line includes a hardwood muddler. “After a while they chip, and where do you think those little flakes go?”
Nepove’s line of Mr. Mojito muddlers also addresses those issues head-on. “We use the hard plastic version of Mr. Mojito at the Cheesecake Factory,” says Matt Raftree, beverage and bakery operations manager for the 100-plus-unit Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based chain. “Other muddlers were always too short; if you tried to muddle in the tin you’d cut your hand. We made our bartenders very happy when we brought in the new muddlers.”
The Mr. Mojito muddler is 10-inches long and bat shaped; the Mr. Mojito Master muddler is 12 inches with a wide bottom on one end that tapers to a narrower diameter on the other end. Both ends can be used for muddling fruit, herbs and more.
The plastic versions are dishwasher safe. Magarian likes them because they will never pick up flavors of the items being muddled; others prefer the hardwood versions, citing the notion that muddlers can become “seasoned.”
Another muddler gaining fans among top mixologists, including cocktailian Gary Regan, is the Pug!, a fat-bottomed muddler with a tapered handle handcrafted by woodworker Chris Gallagher of Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. Word-of-mouth raves are driving sales, and Gallagher may soon take orders via the web.
After all that shaking, stirring and muddling, you need to separate the potables from particulates. The standard strainer is the Hawthorne, with two or four prongs and a wire spring around the edge. It fits into the tin or pint to strain the beverage. Less common, but coming on, is the Julep strainer, a perforated, spoon-shaped strainer that is held over the serving glass to strain larger bits of fruit, herbs, pulp, rind and such.
“The general rule is: If a drink calls for a spirit with juice, milk or cream, shake it with the ice and strain it with a Hawthorne because you are looking for the froth; you want some texture,” explains Abou-Ganim. “If the drink calls only for the base spirit and flavoring ingredients–a Negroni or Manhattan–use a long-handled bar spoon to stir it with ice and pour it smoothly into the serving glass, using a Julep strainer. This results in a clear, elegant cocktail.”
The latest addition to the strainer family is a kitchen sieve or fine mesh skimmer–the kind chefs use to clarify bouillon, for example. “We started using three-inch diameter mini strainers for our fresh strawberry-infused drinks,” says Cheesecake Factory’s Raftree. “They’re very fine and really strain out all the particles and seeds.”
Once the drink’s poured, Seger and Magarian both tout the benefits of a microplaner to zest citrus or grate nutmeg, cinnamon or chocolate over the top. For twists, Magarian says a potato peeler cuts a nice thick swath across oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, even apples. Channel knives are another must for traditional curly twists.
Among the “big guns” of the bar are hand-crank and electric juicers, lime squeezers, fruit sectioners, blenders and ice crushers or nugget ice machines.
When it comes to juicers, several schools of thought exist. Most pros say there’s nothing wrong with ordering fresh squeezed; others advocate using a commercial volume juicer in the back and a classy hand crank juicer at the bar for show. “When I make a Greyhound, I squeeze juice from a ruby red grapefruit into a chilled glass with my Ra-Chand hand-crank juicer. It makes an impression,” laughs Abou-Ganim.
Whether you get in fresh squeezed like the Cheesecake Factory or you juice your own, Magarian advises that ingredients come through a fresh produce supplier, not a bar supplier.
Abou-Ganim prepares fresh juices prior to a shift, filtering and funneling them into glass bottles and storing them in the bar refrigerator. Seger too, specifies fresh, and also recommends the TAG Bar lime press. The lime press looks like a large garlic press; it’s heavy duty and can withstand the rigors of regular use. “It just looks great when you squeeze that lime into the glass,” says Seger.
When it comes to ice, everyone has preferences, but barkeeps also need some way to crack or crush ice for blended and other select cocktails. Cheesecake Factory relies on its Hamilton Beach blenders to crack ice. “They’re very reasonably priced and hold up well,” says Raftree, who also likes the small footprint of his workhorse blender.
Tony Garcia, senior manager of beverage research and development at Phoenix-based Main Street Restaurant Group, says he “tested everything from blenders to super blenders to shavers but found the Vita-Mix Boss the best overall fit for our concept–best footprint, good power and quality cocktails.” The blenders churn out frozen and blended drinks at 50 T.G.I. Friday’s locations operated by Main Street.
Seger says he will never open another bar without a regular cube and nugget ice machine (compressed flake ice) in the back. “Having a steady supply of good quality, soft nugget ice is incredibly convenient,” he says. Casey and Magarian rely on automatic Clawson ice crushers to crush standard cubes. And just recently, Abou-Ganim resurrected the classic Lewis Bag, a washable canvas sack you fill with cubes and pound with a mallet or muddler.
KEEP GARNISHES FRESH
Many passionate mixologists and bartenders come up with their own bar tools to solve common problems. Abou-Ganim describes an experience he recently had in Chicago. “I’m very into good Gibson’s right now. I hit one spot and the onions were crisp and cold and perfect. I ordered the drink at another spot and the onions were room temperature and soggy. What a contrast!” he says, noting that proper garnish handling and storage make all the difference. “This stuff matters. You need to keep your garnishes fresh, cold and prepare them in manageable batches.”
Seger agrees. “I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and picked up clear plastic canning jars, the kind with attached lids, to hold my garnishes. I set them out in a giant bowl of crushed ice,” he says. “They’re elegant and the lids, which seal air tight, are key to keeping garnishes fresh.”
Pourers also elicit a range of personal preferences. Casey prefers stainless steel, saying they’re less prone to break. Raftree opts for medium stainless pourers at Cheesecake Factory. Seger uses black plastic free pours equipped with screens to keep out contaminants.
Pourer quality is important. “We’re seeing a real resurgence of the precision measure, and in addition to a good pourer, we’re starting to use jiggers a lot,” says Casey. Problem is, many jiggers are not consistent. “I’ve found commercial jiggers to have a pretty wide variance–an ounce in one is three quarters in another,” says Raftree. “That’s unacceptable because a drink at Cheesecake has to be the same in every unit.”
As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details,” and professional mixologists have plenty of surprising tools of the trade to take the cocktail experience over the top. For example, Casey and Seger both use dropper bottles: Casey for lemon-infused vermouth; Seger to store his homemade bitters. Casey also picks up a quantity of Luster Dust, a gold leaf powder, from the cake decorating store. “Imagine a couple of lightly gilded olives floating in your Martini!”
More chef tools are finding their way behind the bar, such as potato peelers, mini strainers, citrus sectionizers, melon ballers and even pineapple corers, which can make quick work of any size pineapple for garnish wedges, according to Abou-Ganim. “I could see serving some crazy tropical drink in the leftover shell,” he adds.
Bar chefs are also eyeing the favorite tools of their culinary brethren. Seger of Nacional 27 is impressed with the Vita-Mix blender in use by the chef there, and hopes to get one behind his bar.
Eye appeal is as important as function for some bar tools. Casey has a collection of French pourers, with cork stoppers and glass balls that measure a pour when the bottle is tipped. “They’re just elegant,” she says.
Indeed, some bar tools can make a statement. Recently, Chicago-based Sculpted Forest began marketing its line of handcrafted bottle stoppers to high-end commercial venues. Using more than 100 exotic and traditional woods from around the world, artist Hank Di-Pasquale tips each with a stainless steel and rubber gasket stopper that can be removed for washing. No two are alike and each is a piece of art.
Whether your bar tool taste runs to the fanciful or stays grounded in the practical, your choices are improving. So what’ll it be? A drink, or an experience?
Jenna Winthrop specializes in writing about restaurants and foodservice equipment from Chicago.
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