Last week, I was hanging with a friend who works in a kitchen and we got on the subject of tools. His query of me, delivered while unrolling a never-ending knife bag, went like this: "How come you guys don't have cool tools like we do?"
I was at once astonished and insulted. Didn't he know about the different strainer types I use? What about my requisite three types of bar spoon? Never mind the crackers, muddlers, jiggers and droppers. My realization was that maybe, against all odds, just possibly, there are folks who don't know about this stuff.
Now, I'm the guy who can't walk through a store like Williams-Sonoma without seeing something I "need," but nonetheless, I'm going to attempt to shed some light on the basic necessities one should own to fill a proper cocktail tool kit.
Our initial stop will be in the measuring department. Acquiring a clear liquid measuring cup that holds 2 to 3 cups capacity is a must. This is your vessel for making simple syrup, sour mix, grenadine and bitters, not to mention the party-drink batching potential. Following closely behind is your jigger set. A jigger is an hourglass-shaped device meant for measuring while crafting individual drinks. There are different shapes and sizes of jiggers available and some are even graduated with markings for different fill levels. The highest amount you will ever need in a jigger is 2 ounces, while the lowest amount you would typically need is 1/4 ounce. My one recommendation is that the jiggers you choose are metal and durable. These little devils have a way of jumping out of the hand regularly. Also, keep in mind the most common measurements you see in cocktail books are 1/4 ounce, 1/2 ounce, 3/4 ounce, and 1 ounce.
Next, let's talk shaker sets. There are two basic styles: a Boston shaker, composed of a tin and a mixing glass/cup, or a standard cocktail shaker, which is usually three pieces and sports a built-in strainer. If one elects the Boston shaker, strainers are required. There are two types of strainers, both of which are quite useful. The first and most common is the Hawthorne. The Hawthorne strainer is a plate and metal coil that fits over the open shaker tin. The other strainer (used for pouring from the glass) is a plate that has been curved and perforated, and is known as a Julep strainer. Juleps are great for holding fruit and leaves back when pouring muddled drinks. Oh, and if you really want to geek out, find a sieve or fine strainer. This tool is great for double straining to remove fruit pulp and ice crystals from your drinks.
Alright. Onto muddlers, crackers and spoons (amazing band name!). A muddler is a tool for crushing or muddling fruit and bruising herbs. When selecting a muddler, find one that you are comfortable holding. They range wildly in shape, size and weight, as well as material of make. I recommend a hardwood type. It should be heavy enough that you don't need to apply too much pressure when using it. Crackers are used for cracking particularly large and dense ice chunks into more manageable pieces. Muddlers and single forge (no weld points) spoons will work as crackers if you choose not to spend the coin on a cracking tool. As far as spoons go, this is where the line blurs a bit. A typical bar spoon holds the same as a conventional teaspoon. Sadly, form is overtaking function in this category. They can vary drastically in length and design. Some are fashioned with small weighted ends, some in swizzle stick form, and still others can be found with tridents or other fruit-spearing tools on the opposite end. No matter the style, one's spoon should be close to the correct measure and be long enough to fit inside of your shaker and still present a good amount of handle to manipulate for stirring.
Lastly, grab yourself a great paring knife for cutting fruit and garnishes. In my experience, porcelain blades keep an edge far longer than steel when it comes to regular tussles with citrus. Microplanes and zesters are great additions down the road, but are not immediately critical.
These are the basics. It's possible to get lost in Tool Land like my kitchen-dwelling brothers and sisters. In fact, it's fun as hell, so the sooner you've got your basics the sooner you can build your never-ending kit.