How to make cocktails

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Basic cocktail equipment

Words by Simon Difford

As with most pastimes, a bewildering array of bartending equipment is available but watch a bartender at work and you'll find they use few pieces of equipment. The majority of cocktails need either shaking or stirring so you can pretty much get by with just a shaker and long-handled bar spoon. Ideally, you'd also have a mixing glass, but if not, you can stir in the base of your shaker.

If you have the following 20 or so items, then you pretty much have the full pro-bartending kit. I've not arranged them in any particular order of importance, but I have left the blender till last as if on a budget it's the one item I'd forego, and sadly with it blended drinks.

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1. Cocktail shaker

You can shake a cocktail using a jam jar. You can also start a fire with a couple of sticks but it's easier and quicker to use a match. Similarly, why would you want to shake a cocktail in something like a jam jar when the piece of equipment designed for the job is so affordable?

Cocktail shakers are made in numerous shapes and sizes but there are two basic designs: 'two-piece' and 'three-piece' shakers. You will need one or the other. Three-piece shakers are generally easier for beginners to master and have the added benefit of a built-in strainer, whereas a separate Hawthorn strainer will also be required when using a two-piece shaker.

Three-piece cocktail shakers
Three-piece shakers are also called 'Standard' or 'Cobbler' shakers, they comprise of three sections:

  • Flat-bottomed conical base or 'can'
  • Mid-section with built-in strainer
  • Top cap or lid which seals the shaker and is removed to pour the finished cocktail

In 1872, the first patent for a cobbler-style three-piece shaker was granted in the United States. This style of shaker is preferred by professional bartenders who are practitioners of the hard-shake due to their relatively small capacity limiting travel of the ingredients and ice inside.

Three-piece shakers with built-in strainers pour more slowly than two-piece shakers, especially if the drink being poured contains the pulp of muddled fruit. However, I recommend this style of shaker for home, non-professional use due to its ease of use. See How to use a three-piece cocktail shaker.

The Birdy three piece shaker is an example of elegant Japanese design and efficiency.

Two-piece cocktail shakers
As the name suggests a two-piece shaker consists of just two parts: two flat-bottomed cones, one larger than the other. The large cone, or 'can', is made of stainless steel or silver-plated steel while the smaller cone can be glass, stainless steel or even plastic. If the smaller cone is glass, the pair are collectively referred to as a Boston Shaker, and if metal then you have what's known as a French Shaker.

I recommend two-piece "tin and tin" (French) shakers, such as this one from Bonzer over "glass and tin" shakers. If you do opt for glass, then don't buy a Boston shaker that relies on a rubber ring to seal. Shakers should seal without needing a thump to closed and open with ease. But however good your two-piece shaker, these devices demand an element of skill and practice for a new user to become proficient. See How to use a two-piece cocktail shaker.

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2. Hawthorne strainer

If you've opted for a two-piece shaker, then I'd suggest you also acquire a Hawthorne strainer. These have a spring which runs around their circumference to help catch particles of ice and fruit created by the violent act of shaking. They also often have 'lugs'/'ears' which rest on the rim of the shaker to hold the strainer in position during use. Most designs of Hawthorne strainer incorporate a ridge or finger rest, which when pushed serves to close the sprung-loaded gap between the strainer and the side of the shaker, so allowing finer particles to be caught.

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3. Mixing glass

There is much debate among bartenders as to the best vessel for stirring, with some preferring glass to metal. Metal heats up and cools down quickly, and in doing so uses minimal energy, so having little effect on the temperature of the finished cocktail. In contrast, heavy glass stirring/mixing glasses have more thermal mass, so absorb more energy from the drink being mixed. The heavier they are, the more energy they will absorb. Pre-chilling or freezing such glasses mitigates this effect and, according to experiments conducted by Dave Arnold, "makes them as good as, or better than, an un-chilled metal shaker".

Mixing glasses come in a multitude of shapes and sizes and, bearing in mind the above, heavy Japanese cut-glass stirring glasses stored in a refrigerator or ideally a freezer are now favoured in most high-end bars. If a specially designed lipped mixing glass is not available, a Boston glass (the glass half of a Boston shaker) or even the base of a standard cocktail shaker, will suffice.

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4. Stirring spoon

There are almost as many different styles of bar spoon on the market as there are stirring glasses. Some have spiralling stems; some have flat ends and others three-pronged fork ends. The key thing is for your spoon to have a stem long enough to reach down into the base of the glass. Look for bar spoons that are at least 30cm long.

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5. Julep strainer

Julep strainers are best described as being perforated metal spoons which are slightly smaller than Hawthorne strainers so allowing them to fit inside mixing glasses. They are said to take their name from Kentucky gentlemen who, in the days before straws, would hold them over a Mint Julep to keep the ice and mint from their moustaches. To strain from my mixing glass, I use a Bonzer Heritage Sprung Julep Strainer.

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6. Fine strainer

I'm firmly in the camp that believe that shaken drinks should be fine strained to remove the tiny ice shards which otherwise float like scum on the surface of shaken cocktails. That said, I'd rather have ice scum than use a ridiculously small 'tea strainer' with an overly fine sieve. Cocktail Kingdom's Coco Strainer has a sieve designed for cocktail use. It's also useful for removing pith and pips from citrus juice prior to using in a cocktail recipe.

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7. Measure

Please don't make any of the cocktails on Difford's Guide without an accurate measure. Or if you do don't blame me if they taste unbalanced. Use a thimble measure, medicine measure or even a shot glass, but ideally use a graduated and accurate jigger. Consider an Easy Jigger for home use.

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8. Knife

You'll need a sharp knife to cutting fruit for squeezing and preparing garnishes. I love Japanese carbon steel knives but prolonged contact with citrus attacks their carbon steel, turning it black. A good stainless-steel knife will do but I prefer ceramic knives such as those made by Kyocera. But beware, razor sharp ceramic knives will not stand flexing or twisting motions and cannot be used for cutting hard objects. An ideal blade length is around 13cm (5 inch) as this is long enough to tackle a large pineapple or melon but still dexterous enough to carve citrus zest. See Best bartending knives.

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9. Cutting board

Food hygiene used to point towards the use of polyethylene plastic boards, but while these will stand up to sanitising in hot temperatures and harsh cleaning products, the thin grooves left in these boards harbour bacteria. It is not uncommon to see white cutting boards turned black in bars and if you do, I'd recommend drinking elsewhere.

Avoid glass cutting boards or indeed any such hard surface which will blunt your knives. Properly cared-for wooden boards are a traditional, attractive and practical choice. Wipe them regularly with antibacterial cleaner and rub the board with coarse salt at the end of a bar shift before a thorough clean. Revive the wood with regular doses of food-grade mineral oil (poppyseed oil or linseed oil, not vegetable or olive oils).

Many chefs are now using rubber cutting boards as they are durable enough to withstand cleaning in hot water and yet are kind to knives. Unlike wooden or plastic boards, they also have the advantage of not needing to be placed on a damp cloth to stop them slipping. Soft rubber cutting boards are more expensive than wood but last much longer, so are worth the investment.

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10. Citrus juicer

Pretty much any citrus juicer will do – even using your hands to squeeze wedges or citrus fruit cut into halves. However, the best cheap juicers are the hand-held hinged type that bartenders tend to call "Mexican elbows" (Mexicans don't). Department stores sell these in various colours, green for lime, yellow for lemon and orange for oranges (you guessed it). You don't need a trio of sizes – a lime will happily sit in either the lemon or orange sized device. If you're flush with cash, then I'd opt for a lever action pillar press such as those made by Hamilton Beach or Santa.

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11. Swivel peeler

So-called because their blades swivel so they present at the correct cutting angle, these are chiefly designed for peeling potatoes, carrots and such like but they are also perfect for slicing long thin slivers of citrus peel, termed "twists". There are two designs of these peelers, one with the blade in line with the handle and the other with the blade horizontal to the handle, sometimes called 'Y peelers' due to their shape. I much prefer the type with the blade in line with the handle and favour OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler.

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12. Channel knife & citrus zester

I've a number of zesters and channel (canal) knives and apart from cutting the odd horse's neck I rarely use any of them. Even then, you can cut a horse's neck with a swivel peeler as above. However, channel knives cost less than a tenner and if investing I recommend the OXO Good Grips channel knife.

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13. Waiter's friend corkscrew

I would love to claim that I use a Chateau Laguiole Master Sommelier (pronounced 'Shato Layol') but like most I actually own (and have lost) numerous cheap Model 60 Waiters Friends which double as corkscrew and bottle opener and do the job.

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14. Ice receptacle

If working in a cocktail bar, then I'd hope you have a built-in insulated or even refrigerated ice-chest with drainage. Sadly, these don't feature in your average domestic kitchen, so I recommend using a 14-litre insulated plastic cool box. You'll need to regularly strain and pour out melted water as the ice will last longer if it's not sat in a pool of water. Buy bags of ice as required and empty into your cool box when making cocktails so enabling you to scoop ice from the box into your shaker. The cool boxes are also handy for transporting ice to a party.

An alternative is a robust home ice-tray. I've found this one, from Bar Original, to be very good. Bar Original Silicone Jumbo Ice Tray.

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15. Ice scoop

Now you've an ice-chest, or at least a cool box, so you'll need an ice scoop, ideally a 12oz aluminium scoop. I also use a smaller 6oz aluminium scoop for crushed ice – the latter chosen because its small size is better for channelling crushed ice into glasses. (I also use a monster-size plastic scoop for taking ice from my ice-machine and transporting it to my ice-chest.)

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16. Muddler

Jokes about phallic-looking muddlers aside, all you need is a long, round shaft such as a rolling pin. Elegantly shaped wooden muddlers look great but due to storing in my continually water flushed dipper-well (luxury built into my bar) I tend to use a more contemporary looking and robust stainless steel and plastic muddler.

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17. Nutmeg grater

When selecting a nutmeg grater perhaps look for the type which also has a compartment for storing your nutmeg. That way you know where the nutmeg is.

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18. Powder shaker

A powder dredger with a fine mesh of the type used in coffee shops to dust cappuccinos is perfect for applying powdered chocolate, cinnamon and icing sugar over garnishes and the surface of cocktails.

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19. Linen glass cloths

My mum calls these "tea towels" and they are more essential to bartending than any other item mentioned here. To best dry and leave glasses streak-free, wash glass cloths at the hottest your machine will allow and don't use fabric conditioner. Glass cloths are not only used for polishing glasses, keep one to hand or tied to your waist to wipe water and juice from your hands as you work.

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20. Wooden mallet & Lewis bags

In an ideal world you'd have a crushed ice machine or even a mechanical ice-crusher but arguably a wooden ice mallet and a Lewis bag make better crushed ice as the bag absorbs moisture from the ice. Alternatively, you can crush cubed ice by wrapping in one of the linen cloths above and bashing with a heavy muddler or rolling pin. You can also use a food processer to crush ice but it's not the best thing for the blades.

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21. Lipped saucepan

Not only handy for heating your soup but perfect for making sugar syrup and flavoured sugar syrups such as pomegranate (grenadine).

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22. Funnel

Having used the saucepan above to make your own sugar syrup then (once you've allowed it to cool) you'll find a plastic, or ideally stainless-steel funnel useful to pour the syrup into an empty clean spirits bottle. Vodka bottles are ideal as there's no need to clean if you'd recently emptied one.

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23. Blender

You'll need a blender for all those Frozen Daiquiris and Piña Coladas so choose one with a large capacity and a powerful motor. Vitamix may not be the best-looking but they are certainly powerful and tough. Your average domestic blender will not have the power to crush ice so you'll need to use crushed ice. However, a Vitamix will pulverise large cubes of ice straight from the freezer (although I'd still recommend using crushed ice). Judge your blender by the power (wattage) of its electric motor rather than how slick the design looks on your countertop.

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24. The bag

Professional photographers' equipment bags are perfect for storing and carrying bar equipment. The one pictured by Tamrac is the one I've used for the past 20 years and features padded sections originally designed to house camera lenses, but which are deep enough to accommodate shakers, mixing glasses and glassware. An abundance of front and side pockets, designed for holding lens caps and other paraphernalia snugly house bar spoons, measures, strainers and smaller bar tools. Visit any professional camera store and you'll find a large range of such bags.

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