Cocktail 101: Knives You Need for Making Drinks

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

The cooks, kitchen scientists, and food wonks at Serious Eats love their knives, so we thought it was time for the Drinks crew to step up and show some our cutlery some affection as well. And rightfully so. Knives are just as important behind the home bar as they are in the kitchen. Good knives, carefully kept honed and sharp, are crucial tools in making cocktails and other fine libations.

The home bartender, however, doesn't need very many knives, so today we'll run down the necessities of bar cutlery. If you have a well-stocked kitchen, you'll probably find you already have most of what you need.

I use two knives regularly in working at my home bar: a Santoku knife and a paring knife. Sometimes, when I want a curly twist of citrus zest, I'll use a channel knife for that purpose. But since that happens only when I'm fancy for company, I don't use the channel very often.

Channel Knife

My model is a wood-handled Victorinox, which I bought in a set with a matching paring knife a few years ago. Other models are available, in a range of prices, so it's worth shopping around.

Getting a feel for the action of carving a long, thin strip of zest off a piece of citrus takes some practice, so hang in there. It probably won't come naturally at first.

Santoku Knife

A good quality Santoku knife (or a chef's knife) is crucial for working with large fruit and even for juicing citrus. If you can afford to do so, it's convenient to purchase a separate knife just for your bar. If you're not also using it to chop vegetables, slice meat, and smash garlic cloves, the blade will stay sharper for longer.

When selecting a Santoku or chef's knife for the bar, apply the same rules as when buying one for kitchen use:

  • Try out a number of knives at various stores, and see what fits well in your hand. Don't select something that's too heavy to use comfortably.
  • Pay attention to the material used to make the blade: you definitely don't want your knife to rust.

I use mine for halving large lemons, oranges, and grapefruit prior to juicing. I also use it when carving up larger fruit, such as fresh pineapple.

Paring Knife

Now here's the important stuff. A great paring knife is a bartender's best friend. In the kitchen, a paring knife may be second in command behind a chef's knife, but I think the opposite is true at cocktail hour.

I use my paring knife often behind my home bar, and I keep one around especially for that service. I use it to cut swaths of zest for twisting over cocktails. I cut lime wheels and citrus wedges with it. I use a paring knife to prepare other garnishes, such as slices of apple or pear to perch on the rim of a glass.

I use it to prep berries and fruits for use in syrups and homemade cordials. I use it to peel ginger, trim mint and basil, and prepare savory garnishes for bloody marys.

For tips on selecting a paring knife, I can't hope to improve on Kenji Lopez-Alt's advice.

About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and knife knave. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.