Words by Simon Difford
Photography by Dan Malpass
Even those cocktails such as a Manhattan that don't include citrus fruit are that bit better when garnished with a citrus zest twist. Hence, making cocktails tends to entail a lot of cutting fruit so a sharp knife is required, and depending on how seriously you take your bartending, perhaps a selection of sharp knives suited to cutting fruit through to carving ice.
If you're generally into tools/kitchen equipment then there's pretty much no limit to the number of knives you may accumulate in the name of bartending, some used daily while others sit in knife racks or displayed on magnetic rails as trophy pieces. I'd argue that just two knives are perfect for all bartending tasks, with two optional additional knives set aside specifically for chopping and shaping block ice.
Blade length: 130mm (5.2 inch)
Material: Ceramic (recommended) or stainless steel
Recommended knife: 13 cm Kyocera FK-130WH-BK Ceramic Knife
While a chef's workaday knife, appropriately known as a chef's knife is a robust and weighty 200mm (approx. 8 inch) long weapon (see below), a bartender requires a smaller and lighter knife that's big enough to cope with chopping citrus fruit yet dexterous enough to intricately shape orange zests and other delicate garnishes.
An ideal blade length for general bartending is around 13cm (5 inches) as this is long enough to tackle a large pineapple but still dexterous enough to carve citrus zests and more intricate garnishes. In the kitchen, chef's refer to such knives as utility knives (not to be confused with the Stanley-style utility knives in a builder's toolbox).
Next to blade length comes the style of blade and this should be double-edged, meaning that the blade is ground on both sides to form a v-shape edge. Lastly comes a choice of material: stainless steel, carbon steel or ceramic.
Due to its resistance to rust coupled with its strength and ease to sharpen, stainless steel is by far the most commonplace and many would argue is also the most practical. Indeed, if I was a bar owner supplying knives for various shifts of different bartenders, then stainless steel would be my preference. However, for those wanting a knife for their own use then you can do better.
130mm Japanese Damascus steel knife
Carbon-steel knives, preferred by Japanese bartenders not only look gorgeous, especially Damascus-steel knives with their visible sword-like patterns of layered steel, but prolonged contact with citrus attacks the carbon steel, turning it black so requiring the blade to be cleaned between every dissection of citrus fruit, not merely rinsed under the tap and left wet on the cutting board. But along with those good looks, carbon steel can be honed to an edge that's sharper than stainless steel, and as that edge fades, it can be quickly revitalised with a steel, leather strap or (I recommend) a ceramic cone. I love these beautiful carbon-steel knives but their susceptibility to citrus juice attack makes them impractical for general bar use. For more information on Japanese carbon-steel knives see KinKnives.com, also where I recommend you buy these knives.
130mm Kyocera FK-130WH-BK Ceramic Knife>
My personal preference for a bartender's utility knife is ceramic, particularly those made by Kyocera. Beware, out the box these are razor-sharp, perhaps even sharper than the best carbon-steel knives. They are also impervious to water and citric acid so sit happily on a bartender's cutting board, cleaned with the odd rinse under the tap and quick wipe with a tea towel.
According to Marianne Lumb, author of Kitchen Knife Skills, A "ceramic knife is incredibly sharp and won't leave a residue on the ingredient being cut, like steel knives can. An apple prepared using this knife will not oxidize as quickly as that prepared with a steel knife." However, beware, ceramic knives have two major drawbacks which can be major issues for those not used to using them."
Ceramic knives are delicate tools that can't stand flexing or twisting motions, nor can they be used for cutting hard objects as they will chip and potentially shatter. Flexing and twisting is not a huge issue once you are aware of this limitation and adjust your knife usage accordingly. Fruit and most other objects bartenders chop and trim tend to be soft so the fragility of ceramic blades also doesn't present much of an issue. To cut hard objects such as cinnamon sticks and to tackle large fruits such as oversized watermelons I use a chef's knife (below).
Ceramic knives are razor-sharp when new and due to the hardness of the blade, they will stay sharper longer than either stainless or carbon-steel knives. However, while an edge can be put back on a steel knife with a steel and then sharpened with a stone, neither of these two most common sharpening tools can be used on a ceramic knife. Ceramic blades are so hard that to sharpen them you need a diamond knife sharpener.
I mentioned Kyocera as a recommended brand of ceramic knife earlier and all the reviews I have read agree that Kyocera makes the best ceramic knives. In most countries where they are available, they also offer a sharpening service by mail which will restore your ceramic blade to the razor sharpness when new.
Kyocera Electric Diamond Knife Sharpener
Kyocera also sell an affordable, easy to use battery-powered Electric Diamond Knife Sharpener (DS-50 EXP) which you can stash behind the bar and use to not only sharpen but remove chips on the blade up to 0.5mm deep. This works well but does not return the blade quite to its original razor sharpness, but my much used and self-sharpened ceramic knife is still a site sharper than most bartenders' steel knives.
200mm stainless steel chef's knife
Blade length: 200mm (8 inch)
Material: Stainless steel
Recommended knife: Wüsthof Classic Cook's knife 4582/20cm
There are times when a 13cm (5 inch) utility knife just isn't long enough to cut across the length of a watermelon, or a ceramic blade strong enough to cope with harder vegetables. Enter the long, broad bladed, chef's knife with a 20cm (8 inch) straight-edged blade tapering to a pointed tip.
Beloved by chefs due to its curved blade which allows it to rock like a seesaw on the chopping board as vegetables are diced and chopped. Its broad heel creates a robust knife to withstand more heavy-duty work.
Such an all-round workhorse of a knife should be made of stainless steel. Ceramic versions just aren't strong enough while carbon steel is thoroughbred rather than a workhorse of a knife.
Back in the day, before ice machines and trucks delivering plastic bags of ready-to-use ice summoned by bartenders via their mobile phones, ice was a precious commodity (certainly in summertime) sold in large blocks which bartenders had to hack into useable chunks with picks and knives. What goes around comes around and cocktail culture and the influence of Instaspam have led modern-day bartenders to once again use block ice (made in block ice machines).
Shaping an oversized ice cube to snugly nestle in a specific glass requires very different knives to the two recommended above. Carving slippery wet ice with razor-sharp knives demands extreme caution and as well as the knives below I'd recommend wearing cut resistant gloves.
240mm stainless steel Soba Kiri knife for chopping ice blocks
Blade length: 240mm (9.5 inch) to 300mm (11.8 inch)
Edge: Straight single-edged
Material: Stainless steel or carbon steel
Recommended knife: 240mm stainless-steel Soba Kiri knife
Udon Kiri and Soba Kiri knives are specialized Japanese knives used to prepare udon and soba noodles respectively. Udon and Soba knives are both heavy sturdy knives with thick single-sided blades but it is their straight edge which makes them particularly suited to chopping ice blocks.
When I say chopping, it's not a case of just lining up the blade across the ice and then whacking the spine of the knife with a wooden mallet. Firstly, the ice block should be left at room temperature for a period to temper (become clear to look through). Then run the knife blade back and forth across so a scoreline forms. Then start gently tapping the knife's spine and as you do so a fracture will start to form and grow in the ice along the scoreline. Continue gently tapping until the satisfying sound of the block splitting is heard. (As this video shows, chopping ice is all about technique.)
125ml Japanese hammered layered carbon-steel utility knife for ice-carving
Blade length: 90mm (3.5 inch) to 165mm (6.5 inch)
Edge: Straight single or double-edged
Material: Stainless steel or carbon steel
Recommended knife: 125mm Damascus hammered utility knife
The Udon Kiri or Soba Kiri knives above are great for dividing large blocks into smaller pieces, but to carve these pieces to fit a glass or even shape into a ball or diamond shape, a smaller knife is required. I personally favour a 125mm (5 inches) Japanese hammered layered carbon-steel utility knife but as well as a strong and razor sharp knife. Such a knife must feel comfortable and Star Shaker has a large range of specialist ice-carving knives in various shapes and lengths, both single and double-edged.
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