Photo by Kevin O'Mara/Flickr Creative Commons
All professions have tools, and in the cocktail world, one bartender stands out on the subject of bar tools: Jerry “Professor” Thomas. Thomas published the very first American cocktail recipe book in 1862, and it is well known he traveled the world with a set of solid silver bar tools. In the late 1700s to early 1800s, bar tools included punch bowls, silver ladles, citrus reamers and strainers, knives, nutmeg graters, spoons, small wine glasses for measuring, large containers to be used as measuring cups, pestles and mortars, sugar loaf nibs, and a muddler. In the late 1800s, bar tools began to be improved and patented.
Only a few tools are needed to make great cocktails and, in a pinch, you can even find substitutes in your kitchen drawers. Sure, you can shake up a cocktail in a lidded Mason jar and strain it through your fingers, but if you want to get serious about cocktail making, then invest in a few tools.
A barspoon has a long handle and you use it to stir cocktails, layer shots, spoon dry goods like sugar, and guide a thick frozen/blended drink out from the blender pitcher into a glass. Popular cocktails that require stirring include Gin Martinis, Manhattans, and Sazeracs.
To stir a cocktail, add your ingredients into a mixing glass and then add ice. Place the handle of the spoon between your middle and ring fingers, then insert the spoon to the inside of the mixing glass (bowl of the spoon touching the inside of the glass). Keep the bowl on the inside of the glass as you stir around. Twenty revolutions is a good stir.
All alcohols have different weights (densities), and when you layer a shot, you start with the heaviest alcohol on the bottom and the lightest on top. Let us say you want to layer Irish cream on top of coffee liqueur. Simply fill half of the shot glass with coffee liqueur, set the edge of the spoon bowl on top of the coffee liqueur level, and gently pour the Irish cream on the bowl (breaking the fall) so that it gently layers on top of the coffee liqueur. Some bartenders like to use the curved side of the bowl and others like the concave side of the bowl. I've also seen bartenders use a cherry or the handle of the bar spoon.
A bottle opener opens bottles. Back in the day they were called churchkeys. There are many to choose from. They come in all colors and styles, with retractable reels, belt hooks, and so much more.
A citrus squeezer (also called a hand citrus press) squeezes citrus juice, and there are electric, manual, and handheld squeezers to choose from.
A corkscrew (also called a wine tool or a waiter's tool) is used to open bottles of wine, stubborn corks on whiskey bottles, and as bottle openers. Many types are available, but real bartenders and wine stewards use a waiter’s corkscrew. The best to buy is a “double lever” waiter’s corkscrew, which comes with a small built-in knife to cut the foil off a wine bottle, but you will find the knife can serve many other purposes.
A grater (microplane) is used mostly to grate fresh spices. Just hold the small, stainless-steel grater over the drink and grate. The most popular drinks that require nutmeg grating include Milk Punch and a Brandy Alexander.
A two-sided measurement tool to measure alcohol for cocktails. They come in about five different sizes. But if you can only buy two, get 1–2 ounce and 1.5–.5 ounce jiggers.
A muddler is used to crush and mash fruits, sugar cubes, herbs, and more. Never use a varnished or lacquered muddler because those poisons will get into the drink. There are several muddlers to choose from today.
A shaker is used to shake a drink. You can find novelty shakers in many shapes, but they all break down into two types: cobbler and Boston.
Cobbler shakers consist of three pieces and are mostly used by home enthusiasts. A Boston-type shaker consists of two components pieced together to shake a drink—normally a sixteen-ounce mixing pint glass and a twenty-eight-ounce shaker tin.
A strainer keeps ice and other ingredients that have been shaken from falling into the glass. Bartenders today use three types of strainers: Hawthorne, julep, and mesh.
Hawthorne strainers have a metal coil and can be used on top of a shaker tin or a mixing glass. Julep strainers fit at an angle into a mixing glass. A mesh strainer is used as a
“double strainer”—meaning that it’s held over the glass and used as a second strainer while pouring into the glass from a Boston or julep strainer. It makes sure seeds or small bits are caught before going into the drink.
This is a peeler much like you have at home to peel vegetables but wider to cut citrus rinds.
These cut curly, fancy citrus twists.
Photo by Mangomix / (CC BY-SA 3.0)
(From left to right): (1) champagne bottle stopper, (2) knife, (3) ice tongs, (4) ice scoop, (5) ice bucket, (6) bar spoon, (7) metal cocktail-pick, (8) jigger, (9) fine strainer, (10) part one of a Boston shaker (metal bottom), (11) bar spoon, (12) handheld citrus squeezer, (13) Hawthorne strainer, (14) zester channel knife combo, (15) part two of a Boston shaker (mixing glass), (16) muddler, (17) citrus juicer, (18) grater, (19) wide peeler, (20) corkscrew.
Where to Buy Bar Tools
For a long time, the only online bar tool suppliers were BarProducts.com and Kegworks.com and they are still in business. Today there are many high-end bar tool suppliers such as cocktailkingdom.com, uberbartools.com, and thebostonshaker.com. You can also find bar tools on Amazon.com.
Cocktail Kingdom has a line of signature tools made specifically for famous bartenders and the most expensive barware that I know of is made by Tiffany.
Fun Bar Tool Facts
In the early cocktail-making days, sherry glasses were used as jiggers. It has also been said that eggcups were often used as a jigger. Eggcups were mainly used for breakfast; a soft-boiled egg was placed into the cup, then cracked with a butter knife and eaten out of the shell with a spoon.
The julep strainer was originally called an ice spoon.
The barspoon is believed to come from apothecary medicine and pestle spoons.
In 1932, popular jewelry company Napier produced a silver cocktail shaker with engraved recipes called “Tells-You-How Mixer.” The engraved recipes included Alexander, Bacardi, Between the Sheets, Bronx, Clover Club, Dry Martini, Dubonnet, Gin Rickey, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Orange Blossom, Pam Beach, Sidecar, and Tom Collins. Initially, it was only sold at Saks Fifth Avenue. Today, you can buy one for around $1,200. Napier went on to produce many more cocktail shakers.
The muddler was first called a toddy stick and was made of silver or hardwood.
Double straining (straining with a Hawthorne and mesh strainer held over the cocktail glass) was first done by using a Hawthorne strainer and julep strainer held over the glass.
To heat cocktails, vintage bartenders would plunge hot iron pokers from the fireplace into drinks. They were either called flip dogs or loggerheads.
In 1850, the first known published illustration of a two-piece cocktail shaker was seen in the London News.
To authentically strain a cocktail that is stirred in a mixing glass, you should leave the spoon in as you strain.
In 1868, articles on American cocktails and cocktail shakers were published in two British publications: the British periodical Notes and Queries and Meliora: A Quarterly Review of Social Science.
“This endeavor to get up a system of stimulation has given rise in America to the manufacture of ‘cocktail’ (a compound of whiskey, brandy, or champagne, bitters, and ice), dexterously mixed in tall silver mugs made for the purpose, called ‘cocktail shakers.’”—Notes and Queries
“They toss the drinks about; they throw brimful glasses over their heads; they shake the saccharine, glacial and alcoholic ingredients in their long tin tubes.”—Meliora: A Quarterly Review of Social Science
E. J. Hauck from Brooklyn, New York, patented a three-piece cocktail shaker in 1884.
In 1889, a man from Connecticut created a metal spring to go around a strainer, and a few years later, the Connecticut company Manning & Bowman improved it and punched holes in it to read “Hawthorne,” which was named after the Hawthorne Café in Boston.
In 1892, Chicago bartender Cornelius Dungan patented the double cone jigger.