A Holiday Gift Guide for Home Bartenders
Tools, bitters, ice, glassware, and books.
The holidays are almost upon us, and that means it’s time for gifts.
If someone you know is trying to build out a home bar, that means an opportunity to give the right tools, ingredients, and books. It’s possible to make excellent drinks with equipment found in most kitchens, but better tools make the process much easier. And besides, giving someone bartending tools is an act of both hope and self-interest: Hope that they’ll learn to make even better cocktails — and, if so, that they might share them with you.
With that in mind, here’s a guide to the essentials. The following list emphasizes practicality and usefulness rather than fussy, fancy designs. I enjoy elaborately designed barware as much as the next home cocktail geek, but I always prioritize functionality. Also, I hate cleaning, so I always prefer items you can put in the dishwasher. It’s easier to enjoy your drink if you know you don’t have to clean up.
Stirring, Shaking, and Measuring
Oxo Steel Double Jigger: Gone are the days of free-poured, improvised cocktails. Making great drinks requires precision and consistency. And that means ensuring that your measurements are exactly right every single time you make a drink. The way to do that is with a jigger, a two-sided tool for measuring small portions. There are plenty of jiggers on the market in various shapes and sizes. But far too many deliver imprecise measurements; your one-ounce pour might be more like 1.25 ounces. Not so with this Oxo jigger, which is unusually accurate and versatile. It comes with one ounce and ounce-and-a-half ounce measuring cones, and clear markings for smaller volumes inside, including a relatively rare third-of-an-once measure.
12-Inch Stainless Steel Mixing Spoon: You might be surprised how big a difference a properly weighted cocktail stirring spoon will make. With normal spoons — or even with some cheap cocktail spoons (especially those with red tops) — the stirring action will be awkward and jittery, making it difficult to maintain the gentle, swift stir you’re aiming for. A good spoon will cost you less than ten bucks, and make a huge improvement in the quality and consistency of your stirred drinks.
HiWare 24 Ounce Mixing Glass: It’s possible to stir cocktails in any ordinary pint glass, but the wider base and greater capacity of this larger stirring glass is a better fit for the one-inch cubes you should be using in your stir, allowing for a smoother, more natural stirring motion that doesn’t knock the ice around.
Top Shelf Bar Supply Two-Piece Shaker Set: You may already own a three-piece cocktail shaker with a tin, a strainer, and a built-in cap. But while those shakers are nice to look at, they also have a bad habit of freezing shut after a vigorous shake. Instead, I recommend using a two-piece shaker made of 18 and 28 ounce steel tins that seal together during your shake, then pop apart with a quick thwack after you’re done.
Oxo Hawthorne Strainer: Cocktail strainers come in many shapes and sizes, but the only one you really need is a Hawthorne strainer, which will work with both your mixing glass and your shaker set. The springs on these strainers can sometimes become bent out of shape with use, but I’ve been using an Oxo as my primary strainer for several years, and it’s proven quite durable.
Silicon One Inch Ice Cube Mold: It’s hard to overstate how important ice is when making cocktails. And it’s not just the ice you serve with a drink that’s important. It’s also the ice you use to stir or shake it. To maintain consistency while stirring drinks, I recommend using either three or four cubes of about one inch from a mold like this one.
Two-Inch Ice Cube Mold: For shaking, you can use one-inch cubes. But in order to maintain the greatest balance of control and aeration, I prefer shaking with a single two-inch ice cube. You can also use these as “big ice” for serving drinks like Old Fashioneds and Negronis — but the ice will be cloudy rather than perfectly clear.
ClearlyFrozen High Capacity Clear Ice Maker: If you want perfectly clear cubes for serving, you’ll need an ice mold that employs directional freezing, whereby a large basin of ice freezes, the impurities are pushed to the bottom, and an attached mold strips off a top layer of clear ice. The least expensive, most effective tool for that process is this ClearlyFrozen ice system, which makes 10 clear ice cubes in about 24 hours. Even with the mold, the process is a bit of a pain, and while I generally like this product, the interior plastic basin does have a tendency to crack. There are other, sturdier options that rely on the same directional freezing process, like this one from On the Rocks. I’ve owned it for several years and it works quite well. But it’s quite a bit more expensive, and it makes fewer pieces of ice.
Bitters Triple Play: Occasionally, people ask me how many bottles of bitters they really need. My answer: How big is your shelf? You can never have too many different bottles of bitters, the stranger the better (hello, Dandelion & Burdock Bitters). But if you just want to cover the essentials, you really only need three: Angostura aromatic bitters, Regan’s orange bitters, and Peychaud’s bitters, all of which are found in this convenient three-pack. This trio won’t make every drink you come across, but it will make the vast majority of classics.
Cocktail Kingdom Bitters Dasher Bottle: A dedicated bitters dasher is, admittedly, a bit of an affectation. Sitting out on your counter or bar top, bitters dashers just look really cool. And since they’re not labeled, they add an air of mystery to the drink making process: Only you know what’s in them. But they also have a practical purpose, which is that they allow you to make more consistent dashes. Although it’s true that most brands of bitters come with built-in dasher tops or droppers, the size of the bottle and the style of top or dropper will produce different sized dashes. (Droppers, for example, produce much smaller “drops” than a typical dasher.) Dasher bottles don’t completely eliminate variability, but they can reduce it.
Glassware doesn’t typically change the way a drink tastes, but it does change the way a drink is perceived. It subtly changes the aromas you sense, and it changes the look and feel of the drink in your hand. It’s like a frame for a painting. The painting will always be the same, but the frame can change how you see it. The problem, of course, is that there are nearly as many cocktail glasses as there are cocktails. If you have limited space and a limited budget, you have to choose.
Libbey Geo Rocks Glass: If you only keep one type of cocktail glass around the house, it should be a double rocks glass. A double rocks glass typically runs 12 to 14 ounces, and it works great with drinks served over a big rock. But fill it with crushed ice, and it will also work surprisingly well for cocktails in the fix or tiki categories. It isn’t the best glass for many types of drinks, especially those served up, like a Martini or a Manhattan. But unless you’re making a drink that requires a vessel of 14 ounces or larger, it will never fail you. You can, of course, find beautifully etched and elaborately glasses that cost more than some very good bottles of whiskey. But for everyday use, I prefer something simple and solid, with a heavy base that gives the drink a bit of heft and straight lines that keep the focus on the drink rather than the glass.
Coupe or Nick & Nora glass: If you only keep two types of cocktail glasses around the house, the second should be a small, stemmed glass for serving drinks up. Unless you live for 90s style oversized Martinis, these glasses should never be more than 6.5 ounces — and ideally a little less. Here you have two main choices: a couple, like this affordable 5.5 ounce version from Luminarc, or a Nick & Nora, like this 5 ounce version from Cocktail Kingdom. The coupe is less expensive, and, with its wider bowl and slightly larger size, works especially well for many classic shaken drinks, especially the daiquiri. But the wide bowl also makes it more likely to tip over, and it doesn’t balance quite as well in your hand. So for stirred drinks served up, I prefer a Nick & Nora. It’s somewhat more expensive, and the small size means some larger shaken drinks won’t quite fit. But it’s a more pleasing shape, and it feels a little nicer in your hand.
If you’re going to make great cocktails, it helps to have great recipes, and to understand the history of the drinks you’re making. There are too many useful cocktail books to list them all here, but the following are all worthwhile additions to any home bartender’s library:
Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails: Easily the most important book in shaping my own thinking about cocktails, it offers a combination of deep theory, structure, and excellent recipes. This book will be challenging for some beginners, as it includes complex recipes and ingredients that aren’t especially well-known outside of the bar world. But it also provides something for a home bartender to aspire to: With time and commitment, a home bartender can make just about every recipe in this book.
A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World, by Robert Simonson: Although it contains recipes, this is not a book about how to make cocktails. Instead, it’s a book about how cocktails as we now know them were made, tracing the history of the contemporary cocktail revolution from its inception in the 1980s and 1990s to the explosion of craft cocktail bars we’ve seen in the last decade.
Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, by Martin Cate: I haven’t written much about tiki drinks in this newsletter, but I plan to once the weather gets warmer. In the meantime, this is the single best guide I’ve found to making tiki drinks at home.
Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, by Derek Brown: A thorough, wide-ranging, informative, and all-around delightful look at the history of mixed drinks by Washington, D.C.’s leading cocktail impresario, and the former Chief Spirits Advisor for the National Archives, Derek Brown.
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