If you’ve been following along, you’ve already learned about essential equipment for your home bar. Today we’re going to talk about the yin to Equipment’s yang: Technique.
Bartending is as much performance art as it is a service trade. While each move has an explicit purpose–such as measuring for accuracy–it’s the way these moves are executed that dazzles guests and leaves them salivating in anticipation. For you see, the greatest cocktails in the world do not arrive in a glass but in our minds and when we witness an expert bartender at work, we realize that we are the subject of their efforts; that the magic in their mixing glass will soon be ours.
And then a funny thing happens. The drink is served and, rather than being the recipients of magic we become the bestowers of it. The drink is amazing because we expect it to be amazing. Descartes would be proud.
(Yes, I’m ignoring how quality of ingredients factor in. We’ll get to that later in the Stock Your Bar series, promise.)
So how do you approach Technique? Well, if you’ve got the means then I recommend above all that you take a class. It’s not cheap, especially if you go to a place such as Astor Center, but you might get lucky and find a cheaper alternative if you look hard enough.
If classes aren’t an option, I recommend a mixture of videos along with a general written guide, such as the ones you find in Gary Reagan’s The Joy of Mixology or Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book (both are excellent repositories of cocktail recipes as well).
To help get you started, here’s a list of basic skills along with a few video links strewn throughout:
1) Building: Okay, already I’m off to a lying start because I don’t have a video for this. But, basically, building a cocktail simply means adding the ingredients to your mixing glass. I recommend building without ice in your tin so that the ice isn’t melting as you go.
As for ingredient order, well you have two options:
- Cautionary souls say add the cheapest ingredients first, so a mess up will cost less. Now, this seems great until you try to figure out what’s actually most expensive. It’s not always the base spirit; there are some pricey liqueurs out there and the perishable nature of fresh juices can make those expensive too.
- Another popular option is to add the most abundant and/or spirituous ingredients first, especially for free-pourers. If you’re just starting off, odds are you won’t be free-pouring but I like this approach anyway. It gives you a feel for how the glass fills up as you build a cocktail, not to mention I find it a little easier to adjust measurements of later ingredients in case I over/under measure earlier ones.
One exception to all of this is muddling, which we’ll get to next. You always muddle first because you don’t want to splash liquids all around while muddling.
2) Muddling: First take a look at this video and then come back. All done? Great.
Okay, I don’t love the judging format of the video or the suggestion that you need a long metal muddler, but Michael Cecconi makes a lot of other excellent points:
- You don’t want unwanted items in the drink, like lacquer, glass or (ick) blood.
- If using a large mixing tin for muddling, yes you’ll want a long muddler but I find that for a pint glass, the wooden one I linked to in my previous post is fine.
- Roll your citrus before you muddle or squeeze them. You’ll get more juice this way. Also, if you can, either don’t leave them in the fridge or take them out a few hours in advance. Cold citrus yields less juice.
- Don’t over muddle. You’ll wind up with an unintended grassy/earthy taste. Some people will even just “spank” their mint these days instead of muddling it, allowing the shaking to do the rest of the aroma extraction.
3) Stirring: Here’s your primer for stirring, courtesy of Alberta Straub (“Flighty”). After you watch, get to practicing with water in place of spirits until you build some confidence.
Typically, you stir drinks with all spirits to maintain a smooth, silky texture, whereas shaking is reserved for drinks you either wish to aerate or those that have juice, milk, egg and so on. As Flighty says, it’s harder than it looks so don’t despair if you don’t get it at first — you will eventually.
4) Shaking: I’ve saved the most iconic technique for (next to) last. Let’s start by checking out Jamie Boudreau’s video guide. There’s really three major parts to shaking:
- SEAL the metal part of the shaker to the glass part (after you’ve built your drink, of course). You want to create a flat-edge on one side. This will make the seal easier to break later without also breaking the glass.
- SHAKE the combined shaker, with glass part facing toward you. This is so that if the glass breaks, it won’t go flying towards someone. This is a bar rule and works because of how bars are setup; it may not apply to your own setup.
- BREAK the seal. This can be hard. If the flat-edge of the glass and metal tin is facing you at your 6:00, then you want to hit with the flat of your palm at the 3:00 or 9:00 positions, at the line of condensation (this is approximately where the glass meets the metal). It might take a few whacks until you get the hang of it.
One of the advantages of using two metal tins in place of the glass/metal setup is that if the seal is stuck, you can whack the whole thing against a countertop. You also cool drinks faster while shaking and don’t have to worry about broken glass.
5) Straining: This one’s simple. You’ve got two strainers, a Hawthorne and a Julep (but you could survive with just the former). Hawthorne (Mr. Springy) is used for straining shaken drinks out of the metal half of the Boston shaker, whereas the Julep strainer is used for stirred drinks being strained out of a glass.
You might have some trouble figuring out how to hold them, but if you check any of the above videos you should see an example pour that will clear things right up.
There’s more to learn, such as floating, flaming, garnish cutting and more — but I leave these as an exercise to the reader. You can either check out the video sources or books I linked to, or even jump right into a class.
Until next time!