Everyone does a bar setup or cocktail kit list for Christmas giving or just general information. I want to try to do one this year that in a way that is little more flexible than usual. I’m inspired to write this for a friend who wants to give his son who is graduating from college and is becoming interested in cocktails a gift of a cocktail setup. The kid is an automotive engineer, and his father describes his mindset as: You use the correct, high-quality, specialty tool for the job, and use the best materials to construct your product with. I think this is a very useful metaphor for mixing drinks, and I’ll employ it in discussing how to construct a cocktail kit for yourself or the up and comer in your life.
Most people who ask how to assemble a cocktail kit start with, “I’ll need a shaker, then what else?” But mixing vessels are too big a question to just skip over so blithely. If you are just starting out mixing drinks, your needs in mixing vessels will be different from an experience home drinks mixer’s, which will be different from a professional bartender’s.
First, there are two very different mixing tasks that the cocktail maker will perform throughout his life: shaking and stirring. And we need the right tool for the right job, remember? We’ll start with shaking. There are two kinds of cocktail shakers.
- Boston Shakers: These are the two piece shakers consisting of a metal vessel and a glass or second metal vessel that fit together. They are what you will see the majority of professional bartenders using. They have the virtue of being cheap, easy to clean, and very, very fast. But the Boston is hard to learn to use, and may need other equipment to use it properly. If you your gift recipient majored in Eastern Polynesian Studies or the like, you might want to get him or her the Boston so he or she can learn an actual marketable skill, and be able to move out of your house. But for the beginner who doesn’t need a bartending job, I’d recommend the three-piece Cobbler shaker.
- Cobblers: These are the shakers you usually see people like Frank Sinatra or William Powell using in the movies. They are usually three pieces: a tin, a lid with built-in strainer, and a cap. In a pinch, the cobbler is the only mixing vessel you need, as you can stir in the tin, then strain with the lid. A good Cobbler is dead easy to use, suave and debonaire to employ, and will look good just sitting on the shelf. But they are not so easy to clean, nor very fast and efficient if you have to make lots of different drinks. And a bad cobbler is a nightmare to use. Quality matters in a cobbler. If yours is badly made, it may leak all over the place, or just as bad, it may be impossible to open and get your freshly created drink out without first jumping around and struggling with the lid like a frustrated monkey in a behavioral lab. Cobblers can also be ruinously expensive.
Whichever type you get, keep in mind that materials matter. Get only top quality stainless steel. If you get a Boston, be sure the glass is tempered. Most importantly, do not get an insulated or double wall vessel of any kind. It may seem a good idea to protect your hands from the cold, but being able to feel the temperature of what your mixing through your fingers is as important to making a good drink as a well-tuned suspension is to racing a car.
- Boston: Basic 28 oz. Stainless Steel Shaker with an equally basic tempered rim pint glass.
- Cobbler: Basic but still elegant: Oggi Marilyn Tall and Slim.
Due to the Broccoli interpretation of James Bond, stirring drinks get short shrift in the modern zeitgeist, but to do the job right, many drinks need stirring, including the Martini, and especially the Manhattan! You can, as mentioned before, just stir in your shaker tin if you must, but the shape of almost all shaker tins or pint glasses are to tall and narrow to get a good or easy swirl. If you want the right tool for the right job, a mixing glass is also an important purchase.
The important thing to remember about a stirring pitcher is that it needs to be wide and heavy; wide so the spoon has room to move around amongst the ice, and heavy so it is stable and unlikely to tip. The old school stirring pitchers sold back in the Mad Men days with the glass rod are usually far too big. Fifty years ago, a host would make up a batch of twenty Martinis at once. Can you imagine getting twenty guests to drink the same thing today?
- The Yarai Mixing Glass pictured above is the glass I use. It is elegant, heavy, sturdy, and just the right size. It is also forty bucks, so it may not be the best starter cocktail kit item.
- Sur La Table as a similar-looking model that is half as much and still fills the bill.
Only one of these mixing tools is mandatory (if you have a Cobbler shaker), the spoon.
- Bar Spoon: A long handled mixing spoon is a must for mixing drinks. It can be as simple as an iced tea spoon from your stainless steel flatware in the kitchen. (What? You don’t have iced tea spoons in your kitchen? Filthy Yankee!) Purpose made bar spoons usually are multitools, with a second tool on the other end of the stem, such as a flat disk for muddling or layering drinks, a heavy weight for cracking ice, or a fork. For a first bar spoon, I recommend one with a fork, but it really doesn’t matter. If your gift recipient ends up catching the cocktail bug, bar spoons are one of the things he or she will likely end up collecting. But you need to have at least one spoon with a handle long enough to stick a minimum of a hands-breadth out above the mixing vessel you are giving. And the longer the better…
Doug had a long series of jokes here that I made him take out. You are welcome.
- Strainers: There are two kinds of strainers. The one you have likely seen, with the spring around the edge, is called a Hawthorne strainer, and if you are going with a Cobbler shaker, you don’t actually need one at all for a beginning cocktail kit. A Hawthorne fits atop the metal tin of a Boston shaker, so if you are going that way, add in a basic Hawthorne. The strainer you may not know about, which looks like a little colander with a handle, is called a Julep strainer. It fits inside your stirring vessel, or the pint glass from a Boston. Julep strainers are cheap, and impressively exotic to the inexperienced eye of the date your recipient is trying to impress with his or her cosmopolitan air. They are used for many drinks beyond Mint Juleps. (In fact, I don’t use a Julep strainer when I make my Juleps) Throw one in, even if the only vessel you are starting with is a Cobbler.
- Muddler: A muddler is a small club that you use to bruise or crush herbs and citrus in the mixing vessel. Made from wood or plastic, they too are simple and cheap and damned useful in making a host of cocktails. But you can omit one in a starter kit, to be honest, if your recipient doesn’t like Mojitos and the like. I prefer wood, but if you go that way, make sure the thing is not lacquered. Lacquer wears, and then peels. Chips of lacquer in your cocktail are not good.
- Bar Spoons: Cheap, but plenty good. Deluxe for a beginner. And here is the selection from Cocktail Kingdom. (See? I told you bar spoons can be addicting!)
- Hawthorne: OXO SteeL Compact, sturdy, OXO.
- Julep: One like this is all you need. They make much sturdier, heavier ones. But you hardly need to spend the money at first.
- Muddlers: Wood or metal.
Other Mixing Needs
Again, we’ll start with the only mandatory item: measuring tools. Let’s go back to our engineering analogy. To make a good drink, you need to be sure you are using the right amounts. If you just go assembling things willy nilly, you get a Trabant. No one wants a Trabant.
- You want a measuring device that is precise, easy to use in poor light, and durable. The traditional glass jigger is almost always none of these. Eschew them. Modern metal jiggers, the expensive ones at least, can fill this bill for the most part, but are expensivish and still are vulnerable to low light. My recommendation is one or two OXO mini measures. I love these things, and while not the best for working bartenders, I think they have no equal for all but the most skilled home bartender.
- Knife and Cutting Board: Hopefully, these are already in the inventory. A small, easily cleaned cutting board and a large, serrated knife are important for cutting citrus for both garnishes and ingredients.
- Vegetable Peeler: Another item likely hanging around. A peeler is by no means necessary, but the twists and peels you can produce with one are head and shoulders above what you can do with a knife without risking a maiming.
Jiggers: OXO Mini Measure. Maybe two… If you want a traditional jigger, Cocktail Kingdom’s Japanese Style Jigger will do most tasks with greater elegance (and difficulty) than the OXO.
For a starter cocktail kit, the only consumable you really need is bitters. For many beginners, a single bottle will last indefinitely, but a bar without bitters is like an auto shop without
girlie calendars cleaning rags; you will notice when they are gone. A bottle of original Angostura is mandatory. If you want to go the extra mile, throw in one of orange bitters. There are hundreds of other kinds, but let the kid buy his own when he figures out how to use them.
- Angostura Bitters. Available everywhere from high-end liquor stores to Walmart.
- Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6. There are others. Fee’s is alright, but not in this league. Stay away from Stirrings blood orange as a starter.
Most glassware choices are pretty simple. You need three basic types to serve most things, though only one needs much discussion. In all cases, they should feel nice and heavy in the hand, even when empty.
- Highballs: These are tall, thin tumblers. I’d suggest you go on the smaller side for cocktails. If he or she likes beer, either get some separate pint glasses or tell them to drink from the bottle.
- Old-Fashioneds: Also called lowballs, these are the squat tumblers one sees on TV and in movies, filled with a few fingers of brown liquid and some ice cubes. They come in single and double sizes. For starters, I’d suggest getting doubles, since they are better for simple drinks with sodas like Rum and Cokes.
- Cocktails: Here we go. Stemmed cocktail glasses, often mis-referred to as “martini glasses”, are the tricky ones. Don’t get the new-fangled kind with no stem. That piece of glass is an insulator and you need it. Make sure that the rims are thin. This makes the glass more subject to breakage, and thus requires more care in cleaning, but the experience is simply so much better as to be worth it. You can choose the classic triangular shape, or the once again in fashion coupe style that looks like a small champagne glass. A beginner may want the triangular kind since that is what they see in popular entertainment, but the coupes just don’t spill as much! Finally, give them smaller sized cocktail glasses. Six ounces are perfect, eight the max. Larger glasses encourage larger cocktails to look right in them, but larger cocktails are bad for a host of reasons, safety and enjoyment alike.
I wouldn’t buy glasses online, since you can’t tell about the feel or the rims. Crate & Barrel had a nice selection, as do lots of other stores at the mall. Your local restaurant supply house may be the best bet. You will find very good, durable glassware here in whatever shape and size you want, for a very good price. Just get basic stuff for a starter kit, with no decoration or color.
That’s it! Pick what you need from the above, with an eye to what your recipient’s tastes are, and they should be good to go. Beyond what I’ve written here, they can go their own way with ice trays, fancy bitters, and lots more spoons. All they really need beyond this is a nice bottle of bourbon (say, Four Roses), gin (try Bombay Sapphire), and perhaps a nice rum like Mount Gay Eclipse. That, and a link to this blog, of course!