Was it Dad who always said that if you’re going to do something, be sure to do it right? He hit the mark with that one. Maybe that’s why it looks like I’m conducting brain surgery when whipping together a batch of cocktails.
Neighbors, family and friends often pop in, and out comes all the gear. I keep a full bar, a bowl of lemons and limes, and several shakers, pitchers and other bar equipment on hand. You need to serve something, right? And if you’re going to mix a cocktail, you need to do it right.
And that starts with preparation. If you have room in your kitchen or bar area, set aside one cabinet for bar equipment. Make sure it’s stylish, too, because no matter how delicious a cocktail is, it tastes even better coming from a cool shaker, attractive pitcher and swank glasses. Trust me, sangria served in oversized wineglasses tastes better than the same stuff in a Dixie cup.
When you build your inventory, try to go high-end. You won’t be buying a shaker, corkscrew, bottle opener or ice bucket for several years, and you want pieces that are well-made and functional so that you can be proud to pull them out with guests present. And just like the spirits and wines you pour, the bar equipment is an extension of your personality and sense of style. Are you a Ketel One or Popov kind of guy? Strive for Ketel One if the budget allows.
All of this said, here are a few core items required for any burgeoning mixologist and a few thoughts on each: Ice bucket: It sounds obvious, but how many times have you forgotten the ice at the store? Many of us focus on ingredients and forget this all-important item and the role the modest ice bucket plays. My feeling is that it is at the core of any good bar setup. The vinyl-covered ones like at hotels are cheesy, but they do keep ice insulated. I prefer a glass or crystal bucket since ice is sparkly and visual. The only downside is that your guests can see the melted pool at the bottom. Use a small cup instead of tongs to pick up the ice; it’s more efficient when you have six thirsty people waiting for drinks.
Shaker: OK, Tom Cruise, here is your chance to shine like his character Brian Flanagan in “Cocktail.” Stainless steel is the way to go here. It’s durable and attractive, and it makes that really cool sound of a shaker full of ice and vodka. Just avoid the shakers with recipe writing on the side or brightly colored plastic trim. Glass is good for stirred cocktails, but it’s obviously breakable, as is plastic. Again the key here is to be as cool and smooth as the frigid Grey Goose inside. Always use the strainer to avoid the splash of ice or other solid ingredients that may be in the cocktail. Expect to pay $20 to $30 for a stylish, well-made shaker from places like Target, Williams-Sonoma or Pottery Barn.
Pitchers: This is another one of my passions. If we’re hosting a brunch or dinner party, I’ll make a couple of gallons of sangria, mojitos or margaritas ahead of time in Rubbermaidstyle containers, then transfer the concoction into expressive display pitchers come serving time. Clear glass containers with hand-painted floral designs are a favorite. And since we live in the desert, Mexican-inspired designs are appropriate. Even simple glass pitchers are a nice touch, showcasing the handcrafted beverage inside.
Muddler: It’s a funny word with a serious job. The technique of mashing your fruit or herbs with a wooden implement to extract more flavor and essential oils is back in vogue, and for good reason. Superior cocktails come from fresh ingredients, and a muddler is still the best way to get those flavors out. When I’m preparing those pitchers of sangria, mojitos and margaritas, muddling is involved, be it with a wooden spoon or a formal, usually 8-inch, muddler.
A few other good items to keep around are expressive dish towels for spills, a serving tray to carry the cocktails out to the patio, and perhaps a box of coarse salt to rim those margarita glasses.
Mark your calendar
Bartenders and home mixologists will compete to see who can make the best margarita March 24 during the Sauza Tequila Margarita Mix-Off at Tempe Beach Park. The event coincides with the 2007 My Nana’s Best Tasting Salsa Challenging benefiting the Arizona Hemophilia Association. Mark Nothaft will sit on the tasting panel for the Margarita Mix-Off. Festivities begin at 11:30 a.m. Adult tickets cost $8. Information: (602) 955-3947 orwww.salsachallenge.com.