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You've looked up a recipe for your all time favourite drink, the French Martini, and you're shocked to find out that its only made of three ingredients! THREE! You can't believe you've been paying £10 or more for them all these years in Central London cocktail bars and decide its time to take matters into your own hands. Its time to get yourself a cocktail kit! In fact, it will also make a killer gift for your cocktail loving friend's upcoming birthday too!
The sheer volume and variety of cocktail making sets online is sometimes enough to curb your enthusiasm. Why do some sets have 18 pieces while others only have 3? Do you really need a crystal mixing glass? What does a 'professional' bartending kit even consist of, and why are there 3 different types of strainers?
We're going to answer all of these questions right here! For the sake of simplicity we're going to ignore non cocktail-specific equipment that you probably already have in your kitchen like fruit knives (or any small knife), peelers, graters, bottle openers, corkscrews, and straws. We'll focus instead on the specialist bits and explain what they're used for!
We've listed the essential parts of any cocktail set or bartenders toolkit below, with which you can make every single cocktail in existence. In no particular order, they are:
1) Cocktail Shaker
Used to quickly and thoroughly mix ingredients together. Adding ice while shaking rapidly chills the drink whilst also adding in some dilution to the cocktail, which will reduce the potency and therefore make the whole thing smoother to drink. Shaking without ice will not dilute the drink and is referred to as ‘dry shaking’, which is great when you need to re-shake a cocktail (we all make mistakes but we're not all rich enough to start from scratch!). Dry shaking (ideally before adding ice) is also the best way to get a thicker head on drinks like Espresso Martinis and Amaretto Sours.
There are two types of shakers: Cobbler Shakers, the iconic cocktail shakers seen in movies that have an in-built strainer on the top, and Boston Shakers, comprised of either two metal tins or a metal tin and a Boston Glass, and are more likely to be used in professional bars and pubs.
Although there is no fundamental advantage between the two, Cobbler Shakers are preferred by casual cocktailers and beginner bartenders however they're more likely than Boston Shakers to freeze shut if you shake them for too long!
2) Hawthorne Strainer
Used to stop large pieces of ice from entering the glass as you pour out a cocktail after being shaken up. When using a Cobbler Shaker you won't always need to use one of these, however the in-built strainer won't let as much liquid pass through, so if time is of the essence, or you've made multiple portions in one shaker, a Hawthorne Strainer is definitely the better option.
The primary disadvantage of a Hawthorne Strainer is that it won't stop smaller pieces of ice, broke up during shaking, from passing through into your drink. This isn't the end of the world if your drink already has ice in it, but will dilute your drink if it's not supposed to have any ice in it. Using just a Hawthorne strainer to remove ice is referred to as ‘single straining’.
3) Fine Strainer
Used to catch smaller pieces of ice that the Hawthorne strainer can’t. Essentially just tiny sieves, Fine Strainers are essential for cocktails that have no ice in the glass, which is pretty much very drink served in a Coupe or Martini Glass. Using a fine strainer will even out the foam in frothy drinks, giving them a much more even and professional finish compared to single straining.
A fine strainer is also necessary for removing bits from manually juiced fruits (scroll down to see Mexican Elbows), thick jams and purees. You can also use them when making home made purees and syrups, although a regular household sieve will also suffice. Using both a Hawthorne strainer and fine strainer simultaneously is called ‘double straining’.
4) Bar Spoon
Used for mixing, stirring, and churning ingredients in a glass. It is long and slender so that it can fit between ice and comfortably reach the bottom of any glass. This is essential for drinks that need to be stirred thoroughly with ice, like an Old Fashioned. Similarly to shaking, the longer you stir, the colder you make your drink and the more dilution you introduce to the mix. Stirring quickly and briefly will chill your drink and , minimise the level of dilution.
The bar spoon will typically hold 5ml of liquid for more precise measuring that you can't get from using a jigger. Professional bartenders will often use a bar spoon to control the slow pour of a liquid to layer shots or float spirits and juices in cocktails
Used to measure liquids such as spirits, syrups, oils and juices. There is no set standard measurement for a spirit jigger, but you can expect them to come as low as 15ml to as high as 60ml. Wine Jiggers will come in 3 standard measurements: 125ml, 175ml, and 250ml, for small, medium and large glasses of wine respectively.
Some jiggers come double sided and will typically hold 25ml, a standard single measure in the UK, and 50ml, a standard double, on either end. If the jigger measures liquids in ounces, they'll typically hold 1oz on one side and 2oz on the other. Some jiggers cut out all the confusion and have conversions between the two marked on, allowing for more measurement options in both millilitres (ml) and ounces (oz).
Used to squeeze juices and oils out of fruits and herbs to add flavour and fragrance to your drink. Despite how astonishingly simple a tool it is, there aren't many household alternatives that can reliably recreate the results a muddler can bring. Lightly pressing ingredients with a muddler will release fragrances and oils which will subtly change the smell and taste of your drink, as is the case with Mojitos and Mule drinks. Pressing fruits with more force will release most of the juices and effectively introduce another ingredient to the mix, which is what you get in Caipirinhas.
You can also use a muddler to manually crush cubed ice into crushed ice for drinks like Brambles. All you need to do is put the cubed ice into a plastic bag of some sort (a sandwich bag will do), seal it, and wrap it in a dish cloth, then use the muddler to crush the ice into small fragments.
Beyond these essential pieces of barware, kits designed for professional bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts will also likely include:
Very similar in many ways to a Hawthorne Strainer except it's marginally less versatile and significantly less popular. It is traditionally expected to be used in conjunction with Boston glasses and mixing glasses, reserving Hawthornes for metal tins, however this is little more than a long standing tradition in the bartending world and does not fundamentally affect anything. According to Imbibemagazine.com, the julep strainer was originally intended to be kept inside the drink to separate crushed ice as the drinker consumed it.
Used for rapidly chilling drinks but with far less dilution than shaking since the ice isn't broken up into little, fast melting pieces. They are classically made of elaborately decorated glass but can be made of metal or plain glass too.
The shape of the mixing glass aids in slick and seamless mixing with a bar spoon, but the same outcome can be achieved with practice in a Boston glass, the large metal tin of a Boston shaker, or a Cobbler shaker.
A handheld juicer used for squeezing the juices out of fruits. Also known as 'citrus squeezers' or a 'fruit press', Mexican Elbows are a fantastic addition to any bar set for their ability to quickly and efficiently produce fresh juice and their unapparent ability to save you money while making cocktails.
We think Mexican Elbows are fantastic yet wrongfully underrated. Read our short recommendation on Mexican Elbows, and get your own on Amazon.
Used for accurately and cleanly pouring liquids from bottles. Speed pourers, aka pour spouts, are widely used in bars and pubs but are often underestimated in individual cocktail kits.
They're perfect for controlling how much of a liquid you want, and absolutely necessary when learning how to free-pour, however, like we point out in our post about the importance of pouring, this only works if they're well made and reliable.
P.S. There is no such thing as a perfect cocktail set. Whether or not a cocktail set is right for you depends on your level of expertise and the drinks you intend to make most often with it, so don't feel paralysed by indecision when choosing one! We recommend gradually adding individual tools to an essential kit as and when you decide you need them.