What A Tool!
As I’ve been travelling quite a bit lately, trying to get gigs wherever they may be (my San Francisco trip will be posted soon) I’ve had to find a way to bring my bartending tools with me. Now you may be wondering why I would bring my own tools when I’m going to work at a full functioning bar, but let me start off by saying that the expression “A spoon is a spoon is a spoon” is not true. If I’ve confused you, excellent: read on.
Good chefs have, since the beginning of time brought their own tools to work. For that matter, every true professional (in jobs that involves hands-on creativity) uses their own tools, whether they are a sculptor, mechanic, carpenter or stone-mason. There is a relationship that one develops with tools over time, whether that tool is a chisel, hammer, knife or Hawthorn strainer. As bartending begins to be taken as a serious profession in the US (which really hasn’t happened since Prohibition) and people choose this noble profession as an end (and not a means to an end: i.e. acting) the tools that a professional bartender uses should be given more thought.
Let’s start by examining the first examining the basics, slowly working our way to the more esoteric tools that one may need and finally ending on which carrying case to choose.
The Mixing Container
For most people a well constructed Boston shaker will do the job as you are able to shake and stir with one tool. The key to picking out a well-made Boston shaker is to check to see if the metal part is all one piece with no obvious seams. This not only makes for a better shaker that will have a more consistent seal, but it won’t be able to fall apart on you, unlike those other two-piece metal shakers. As for the glass part of the Boston shaker, try to find one without any writing on it. If you can’t find a proper set, just go to the glass section of any kitchen store with the metal part of your shaker in hand and find a pint glass that will make a good seal.
I personally prefer an all metal shaker for shaking (the drink gets colder faster) and a large glass container for stirring (you can see what’s going on and add tons of ice for proper chilling). The metal container that I carry in my travelling case is WMF, who also makes a good mixing glass. I’ve found, however, that a much cheaper mixing glass can be had by using a Bonjour French press insert. Why Bonjour? Easy, they have the least amount of writing on the glass (and are also cheaper than Bodum). When I hit the lottery I plan on upgrading my metal shaker to one of silver.
The Hawthorn Strainer
There are a plethora of cheap strainers on the market, most of them with loose springs that fall off easily. I personally look for a strainer that has some weight (doesn’t feel flimsy) and has a nice tight coil that would also be difficult to take off if, I so desired.
While WMF makes a pretty good strainer, I’m just in love with the one that OXO makes. Tight coil, raised lip, finger rest: what’s not to love?!?!
The Julep Strainer
I’ve yet to find a source for a good quality julep strainer. However, it is handy to have one in your repertoire (even if you can’t find a stellar example) as you don’t want to use your Hawthorn when straining out shakers that have leafy ingredients in them like basil or mint.
This should be of solid metal construction. A twist down the middle of the base encourages a certain style of stirring as well as slows down liquids when making your pousse-cafés.
I am a big fan of the solid metal end: never use a spoon with a plastic end! I have spoons with round knobs for the end (excellent for stirring) as well as the flat disk (which is excellent for layering) and enjoy using both. The shape of the end of the spoon is not as important as material that it is made with. You haven’t used a plastic spoon since you were eating pureed apples and carrots for dinner; why would you use a plastic spoon for bartending now?
This is the spoon I use. It has lasted for years and has great weight. I can’t imagine using another.
The Wine Opener
A simple waiter’s corkscrew is what you’re looking for here. Make sure it’s doubled hinged and Teflon coated (the spiral is black). A serrated blade will stay sharp longer that a straight edge as well.
Jiggers come in all shapes and sizes, but I’m a HUGE fan of the OXO jigger. The fact that it measures from ¼ oz to 3 oz and is easy to read make this jigger a must have for me.
For this you want something that is made of hard wood, has little to no writing and definitely no paint (it flakes off). Remember to get some food grade oil to take care of your muddler; it’ll thank you by lasting a lifetime.
As everyone’s hands are a different size, I’ll let you choose your muddler, but let it be known that I’m a big fan of Pug!
Ensure your knife is of high quality and is always kept sharp. Knives are a very individual thing so go to your local kitchen store and hold several to make sure that it feels good in your hand. Some bartenders prefer to have two knives, one for paring and cutting small fruit and another for cutting larger fruit like watermelons or pineapples.
The Cutting Board
Any quality board will do, but I’m a big fan of thin lightweight cutting boards: I am lugging all this equipment around after all! I usually choose black cutting boards, because for some reason I always seem to spill some Angostura bitters on them, and Angostura stains. Right now my travelling cutting board is from Epicurean.
A handheld juicer is always important to carry as you never know what kind of situation you will be walking into when you travel. While I like larger juicers for home and bar, a solid handheld juicer is always good to have as a backup. Handheld juice presses like this are a good start. If space is of a premium, you could also use a reamer.
The Fine Strainer
Also known as a tea strainer this is used for double straining cocktails. This tool is great for keeping out smaller bits of fruit and ice that your Hawthorn strainer just can’t catch. There are a million of these, but I’m a fan of all metal ones like this.
When it comes to zesters, I always have two: the Y-Peeler for extremely thin wide zests with no pith, and the channel zester for the classic twisted zest that looks better in a Champagne flute. When choosing your channel zester, ensure that it is sturdy (see if it bends easily at the point where the handle and the head meet) and that you can feel the “teeth” of the zester. If you can’t feel those teeth, it probably won’t do a good job. Available in every kitchen store.
The Spice Grater
Extremely useful in the winter, the fine grater can also be used to add fine zest to a cocktail as an ingredient (think toddy) or garnish on foam. Microplane seems to be the authority on graters.
The Ice Tongs
While most bartenders nowadays don’t have a use for ice tongs, I use them every time I bartend. Not only are they useful for putting single cubes of ice into that cask-strength whiskey, but they are a great way to introduce a straw into a glass without getting your grubby little mitts all over it. I find people tend to appreciate the fact that you place a slice of lime on the rim of a glass with tongs: it’s a touch of class. When using tongs in this manner, you’ll want to find a set that is fairly flat; you don’t want a huge space in between the teeth when you squeeze the tongs together or you won’t be able to hold your straws. These are bad; you want something more like this.
Useful for flaming orange zest, in tandem with the Mister (see below) and charming the ladies that need to go out for a smoke, I’ve always used the Atoll Robusto (if you hunt around you can find them for about $75). Besides being handsome, this lighter has a double flame that stays lit without your help (useful when flaming the rosemary in a Rubicon).
The Bitter Bottles
I can’t depend on the cities or bars that I visit to have ready access to bitters, so I always pack some with me when I travel. While I like using fancy bottles to sit on the bar (yup, WMF again), for travelling purposes I go to Specialty Bottle, which has bottles of all shapes and sizes. I usually pick small bottles for travelling which in turn allows me to carry more variety than if I had just used the original bottles that the bitters came in. On another note, WMF also makes dasher tops which can be used in antique bitter bottles that one may find on eBay.
Really? You need me to tell you which rags to get? OK then, make sure you have at least two (a damp one for under your cutting board and one for your spills) and make sure that they can absorb liquids. If the rag for spills gets too dirty, swap it for the one under your cutting board. That’s it.
The ISI Container
While this isn’t a necessary item, it is certainly handy if you want to make drinks that have whipping cream, or better still, foams on top. These can be found in any quality kitchen store.
I’m probably one of only two people that I know that uses this tool, but I love it nonetheless. Again I’ve gone to Bonjour for this tool; it’s the lazy man’s way to incorporate egg into your cocktail. Much more effective and faster than dry-shaking, the frother ensures that my flips and sours have a large head that is there to stay!
Tip: Make sure you get a frother with hard blades and not a whisk-style end.
Another item that isn’t a necessity by any means, the mister can be used to spray subtle flavors on a glass before filling it (think absinthe) or as a torch if filled with high-octane booze (check out my Rosewater Rickey video). You want to get a quality stainless steel mister as the cheaper ones clog easily and fall apart before long.
Here’s where you can have some fun.
While some, like Robert Hess, may prefer to use a doctor’s bag, I like to go one step further. My traveling case may cost a fair bit more than the doctor’s bag or even a camera bag (which I’ve used in the past), but it looks quite a bit more professional, and ensures that I never leave a tool behind.
To start off, one needs to find an old suitcase. You know the kind I mean, an old, battered (maybe not too battered), solid hard case with lots of room that your grandfather (or great-grandfather) used to use. They can almost always be found at any antique store (or eBay) for around $20-$40.
Once you’ve found a suitable case, grab your local Yellow Pages and search for foam shops (the kind that sell foam mattresses) in your area. Give them a call to ensure that they make custom foam molds and bring your case, along with all of the bar tools that you want to travel with, down to the foam shop. Don’t worry about figuring out what tool needs to go where: they’re professionals and will take care of this for you.
My setup took about a week to make and cost around $100, which may seem like a lot, but when you consider that the kit is airplane proof, and will last a lifetime, it really is a paltry sum. Also, as I’d alluded to before, because each tool has its own mold, I always know if I’ve forgotten something.
There you have it, pretty much every tool that you will need when making drinks away from your home/bar.