You’ve finally carved away precious square footage to make room for that most sacred of household additions: the home bar. But turning out top-notch drinks while in your slippers takes more than good intentions. There are bottles to buy, tools to agonize over and techniques to master. Follow us as we help you navigate your home bar basics.
Anyone who has ever strolled the aisles of a fancy culinary specialty store knows a gadget exists for every kitchen task no matter how trivial. (Onion holder? Strawberry huller? Really?) And while some are indispensable for certain jobs, others, especially those that are single-purpose or redundant, merely clog up drawers and storage space.
It’s the same behind the bar. Aside from tools to shake and stir drinks, you’ll want to stock a few (read: a few) to help you garnish them. We’ll tell you exactly what you need (and what you don’t) to adorn your cocktails with aromatic citrus swaths, sprigs of microherbs and spice shavings.
From the expressed oil of an orange peel in a Manhattan to a sprinkle of grated nutmeg on a creamy mug of Eggnog, many cocktails would lack that je ne sais quoi if they weren’t flaunting some kind of garnish. Since the 18th century, when barkeeps were topping Sherry Cobblers with overflowing fresh fruit, herbs and an ample dusting of powdered sugar, adornments atop libations have added flair, aesthetics, aroma and flavor. But to really make your garnish game strong, you need the right tools.
What Experts Say
For à-la-minute peeling, Aaron Polsky, the bar manager at Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, eschews a channel knife for a Kuhn Rikon Y peeler, which he says is very sharp and cheap. “Apply pressure to get a wide swath that you can squeeze, making sure to maintain control so that that the peeler doesn’t slip and cut you,” says Polsky. “And keep the bottom edge of the blade scraped of citrus buildup.”
Will Lee, a bartender at Grey Ghost in Detroit, prefers Titan peelers as “they have a pivoting serrated blade, which gives you a bit more control when using it.” Any peeler should be sharp enough to render precise, thin cuts from only the aromatic peel layer rather than the bitter white pith.
Twelve-inch-long BarConic tongs from BarProducts.com “are a good weight and size, just tight enough but not too tight,” says Lee. Scott Jenkins, the director of beverage at Hide in Dallas, likes to grab garnishes with any brand of 10-inch-long surgical steel tweezers, which “keep your hands from getting sticky and help you with precise, clean placement.”
Microplane is the most respected brand of grater—so sharp and well-crafted that they often never need to be replaced. Jenkins uses one for nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom pods and the like. Not matter what brand you go with, “it should make very fine, almost powderlike gratings more for aromatic qualities so as not to interfere with the texture of the drink,” he says.
“Tools should be kept in an accessible spot [and] cleaned well after each use,” says Jenkins. “Let the tool do the work,” says Lee. “If you have to force it to do the job, it’s probably not the right tool and there’s a good chance you could hurt yourself.” If you do keep a knife behind the bar, “keep it sharp (ideally with a stone) and use the point for fine garnish work and the heel of the blade to carve ice,” says Polsky.
You can probably pass over a zester or line peeler, says Jenkins, which make clumsy-looking citrus spirals that can add unpleasant texture. Ditto for the trident spoon, which sports a little fork on one end that’s a stabbing hazard for pretty much every bartender who has ever reached for one, says Lee.
On the flip side, you might discover an interesting, unintended use for a garnishing tool. He has seen a citrus press used to create a mini ice bowl out of crushed ice set on top of a cocktail and filled with a garnish or liqueur. “It’s pretty cool-looking.”