Cocktail Tools: What to Buy After You Have the Basics

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


[Photo: Wes Rowe]

So you've been making cocktails for a little while, and you have all your basics in hand: a shaker, a strainer or two, a jigger or measuring cup, a bar spoon, and some basic glassware. You'll do just fine making drinks with those, but if you're feeling the urge to add a few more tools to your collection, it might be time to pick up these extras. While some might not consider these products essential for cocktail-making, they're still nice to have around.

You can accomplish these tools' tasks in other ways, but I find that these items make life a little simpler and cocktail-making a little more fun.

Tea Strainer or Mini Strainer

[Photo: Jessica Leibowitz]

If you like to make cocktails with citrus, fruit, and herbs, you risk pulpy drinks. (And who likes a pulpy drink?) To keep your drink clear and free of herb bits, you'll use a process called double-straining. My preferred tool for the job is a repurposed stainless-mesh tea strainer, like this one from Amazon. Oxo makes one, too, and if I were buying one now, I'd probably get the Oxo model.

To use it, hold your cocktail shaker and strainer in one hand and the tea strainer in your other hand. Pour the drink through the cocktail strainer, and through the tea strainer, and into the glass, as shown above.

Channel Knife

[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Maybe you want to make those curly thin twists of citrus peel that you sometimes see in cocktails. If so, a channel knife is the tool you want for that. It removes a very thin strip of just the yellow (or orange, or green) part of a citrus peel. If you work very carefully, you can usually get a pretty long twist going, if you want to get fancy.

Empty Bitters Bottles

Remember the three Rs of eco-friendly living? Reduce, reuse, recycle? Don't recycle your bitters bottles, and for god's sake, don't reduce the amount of bitters you use. Reuse the bottles! I scrub the labels off mine and use them for ingredients measured in dashes: absinthe is a perfect example, and I often also keep grenadine and maraschino liqueur in old bitters bottles.

Bar Mat

If you're a sloppy drink-maker (and aren't we all?) then you should probably get one of these. A bar mat is designed to catch any spills that happen as you're making drinks. You've probably seen them at your favorite watering hole; they're often a couple of feet long, and a few inches wide. They'll help you avoid dripping fruit juice or liquor from the counter to the floor.

Lewis Bag and Ice Mallet

[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

If you've ever tried to make a perfect mint julep, you might already know that finding the right tool for crushing ice is a thankless task. Buying an electric ice crusher for the home is kind of silly, in my opinion, unless you have a ton of storage space in your kitchen. Manual ice crushers sometimes work just fine, and sometimes are kind of crappy. You can easily crush ice in a blender, but you have to be careful. The ice that's down by the blender blades will melt, and unless you drain your ice to remove the water, you risk overly diluting your julep.

I have a Lewis bag for the task. You fill the canvas bag with ice, turn the fold to keep the ice in the bag, and then hammer it hard with a meat mallet. The canvas wicks away excess moisture, so what you have at the end is nicely crushed ice that's dry.

You can use a gallon-sized zipper-topped bag, but I find that after a few whacks with the mallet, the ice starts to make holes in the plastic and thus leaves a puddle of water on the countertop. If you don't want to buy a canvas bag, your best bet is to fold up the ice in a clean bar towel before whacking it to pieces.

Now, I personally use a meat mallet, and if you have that on hand, you're probably okay. You can also use a rolling pin. But I still have my eyes on a large wooden ice mallet. Why? Mostly because I think the New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian just looks so damn cool using one in this video. They currently seem to be out of stock most places, but you can keep on eye on availability.

Bar Mop Towels

Bar mop towels are super-absorbent terry-cloth towels, and you should always have them on hand. You can buy commercial-grade mop towels, the kind bartenders and chefs and line cooks use, for absurdly cheap prices: like, 24 for $20. They're great for all sorts of kitchen uses, and handy for polishing your glassware, mopping up a bitters spill before it stains your countertop, and wiping fruit trimmings off your cutting board.

Nutmeg Grater


[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Add a nutmeg grater or mill to your travel bar kit, the one you take when you visit friends and they want you to mix drinks for them. Why do you need this, when a microplane grater works just as well? Here's why: find the kind with a storage compartment. Keep a couple of whole nutmegs in there, and then when you're out making eggnog for folks, you'll have the nutmeg handy, in your bar kit.

Dedicated Kitchen Tools

When I first started this hobby, I used kitchen tools we already had around: knives, cutting boards, etc. Now I have some dedicated tools just for cocktails. I keep an angled Oxo measurer that's just for drinkmaking. I have a small 6 x 10-inch plastic cutting board that never touches meat or stinky onions—just fruit for cocktails (and sometimes for my kids). I also have a paring knife that's only for cutting fruit. I don't yet have a chef's knife just for cocktailing, but maybe that's next.

About the author: Michael Dietsch lives with his wife and kids in Brooklyn. His first book, Shrubs, is due in October 2014. You can reach him on twitter at @dietsch.