The Bartender’s Starter Kit: Cocktail Experts Share Their Essential Tools, Books & Tricks of the Trade
So, you want to break into bartending? Good plan, but before you get fitted for your first pair of suspenders, keep in mind that no bartender can run efficiently without an arsenal of tools and techniques. As any seasoned bartender knows, a craftsperson is often only as good as his or her tools — and when you’re just starting off on your path, having the right stuff in your arsenal can give you a much-needed head start. Here, a few of the country’s most seasoned bartenders sound off on the starter kit essentials that set up any new bartender for success.
Start with the basics — weighted tins, mixing glasses, bar spoons, hand juicer, Lewis bag, ice cube molds, cutting board and a good knife. If you want to get fancy, Polite Provisions owner Erick Castro recommends the Koriko Hawthorne strainer, Kuhn Rikon Swiss peeler and Cocktail Kingdom’s Bad Ass Muddler. The most important of these must-have tools is probably an accurate jigger. According to Lost Lake’s Paul McGee, measuring ingredients is the first step when making a drink and proper jiggering is the first technique he tackles when training a new bartender. He is partial to the OXO jigger or Cocktail Kingdom Leopold jigger because of its clear measurement markings and ease of use.
More sophisticated programs that rely on housemade syrups, tonics and tinctures can learn from The Aviary’s beverage director Micah Melton, who says a high-capacity and accurate kitchen scale is a must. “Nobody should ever use volume to create simple syrup. It will change every time you make it. Equal parts by weight water to sugar is the way to go, as well as heating the liquid before measuring and not after, or you will lose some water to evaporation.”
Although many bartenders turn to the internet to beef up their booze knowledge, tried-and-true cocktail manuals remain a fixture at any watering hole worth its whiskey. Not surprisingly, when opening a new bar, it’s best to look at the bar’s that came before, many of which have chronicled their process and recipes in books. “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails,” “PDT” and recently released “Smuggler’s Cove” provide a strong foundation. For a more overarching understanding of the biz, multiple experts recommend “Imbibe,” “Liquid Intelligence” as well as Jeffrey Morgenthaler's ”The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.” According to Scott Baird, founding partner of The Bon Vivants and Trick Dog, “It’s the ultimate textbook for how to bartend — it's a very good, basic and comprehensive understanding of what's happening right now in the bar world.”
“I believe a good bartender should be able to make a great drink with whatever is available — bad ice, a pitcher and a wooden spoon, if that's all you have,” says Louisville’s Larry Rice, owner of The Silver Dollar and El Camino. “As long as you have an understanding of your ingredients and know how to balance a drink you should be able to come up with something that is enjoyable.”
Easier said than done. More valuable than any $20 strainer or jigger, seasoned bartenders, including Dale DeGroff, stress the importance of experience and education. DeGroff spent years “on the firing line” getting to know the demands of a cocktail bar, how to interact with customers and developing recipes along the way. “Getting through these times is a trial by fire no professional can skip,” he says. Other bartenders, such as P(our) founder Alex Kratena, recommend travel and curiosity in the form of a one- to three-week stage every year. The result is not only a well equipped bartender, but a perfectly adept one who knows his or her way around a cocktail.