The Evolution of the Bartender's Tool Kit

 photo by Brian Petro

photo by Brian Petro

It has been over two-hundred years since the term “cocktail” hit the American lexicon. Those two centuries have seen incredible changes in the way we enjoy a tipple. From breaking down large format punches into single servings to utilizing the culinary magic of chefs, we have seen the way we consume spirits continuously evolve - even the glassware we consume it from has evolved. The time has come that even craft beer pubs are likely to l have a variety of glasses to consume your beer of choice. But stepping behind the bar to make a cocktail is a different story. Unless you are walking into the back room of the Aviary in Chicago or New York, or Scout in London, you are going to see a setup that has not evolved much since the 19th century. Most of the equipment that famous 19th century bartender Jerry Thomas used to make the cocktails in the Bar-Tender’s Guide are still included in even the most cutting edge cocktail books. Most of the innovation in cocktail gear was formalized by the late 1890s, and the bartending world has not changed it much - with some exceptions.

There were no real tools of the trade when cocktails were first being mixed. This is mostly because they were punches, created in large quantities. At the time, most beverages were created that way, including coffee. People would make a large vat of it and serve it until it ran out, then make a new batch. The bartender’s kit was a simple affair in the early part of the 19th century. All a bartender needed was a knife, a reamer for juicing, and the precursor to a muddler - the toddy stick. It was thinner than a muddler, with the added benefit of being able to stir the drink with the other end. If it was a high end establishment, they may have had a citrus reamer. In general, bartending was bare bones.

 Harry Johnson via Wikipedia

Harry Johnson via Wikipedia

Late 19th and early 20th century innovations

As the country sped to the end of the century, two major shifts happened in the bar world: The first was the bar becoming a gathering hotspot. They went from seedy and hidden areas to well-respected and classy environments. Bartenders were making a name for themselves by dressing up and putting on a show while making a cocktail. In 1862, Jerry Thomas released the Bartender’s Guide, with recipes and set standards. It was now possible to get the same cocktail in San Francisco or New York prepared the same way. The other was access to ice. Bartenders before the mid 19th century did not have to worry about straining ice out of their cocktails, because there was no ice in cocktails. The first commercial ice maker did not hit the market until the 1850s. It was similar to a Clinebell, where the ice was created in large blocks and cut down to serve in high-end restaurants for rich patrons. If they did have ice, it was shipped in from a great distance and was part of the flair of a cocktail. By the beginning of the 20th century, over 80% of New Yorkers had a way of keeping ice in their living space.

Well crafted, chilled cocktails required a whole host of new tools be added behind the bar. The toddy stick was split into two separate tools, a muddler and the long bar spoon we see utilized today. Proper, standardized measuring tools were put behind the bar so each cocktail would be the same for each guest, no matter who was behind the stick. Up to that point, a sherry or wine glass was used to measure out ingredients. This new invention, the jigger, made it easy to measure the small quantities of liquid needed for a single drink. Mixing went from stirring vigorously to pouring the cocktail between glasses to throwing the cocktail between glasses - sometimes on fire. Once the profession realized what a dangerous mess this could be, especially to a well pressed, white shirt and black vest, they started to move to shakers.

 Julep strainers, photo by Brian Petro

Julep strainers, photo by Brian Petro

If a powdery mountain of crushed ice was not part of the cocktail, they strained the ice out with a slotted spoon. The 19th century love of spoons for every occasion lead to the Julep strainer. In fact, it was originally called an “ice spoon” before it became attached to that particular cocktail. As the Julep strainer hit its popularity, its successor was emerging onto the market. The Hawthorne strainer had three advantages over the Julep: The first was flexibility. Julep strainers did not fit on the mouth of every glass. And the types of glassware available was almost as varied as the spoons. A Hawthorne strainer fit in just about every glass, thanks to its handy spring in the front. Adding to the first advantage, the Hawthorne strainer was MUCH easier to use. No feats of finger strength and dexterity were needed. Clap it on top of the glass and start pouring. The third advantage also had to do with the spring. It caught more of the pieces of muddled herbs and fruit than the wide holes of the Julep strainer. While the Hawthorne strainer quickly became the preferred tool of the Golden Age bartender, the Julep strainer hung around the bar as well. Possibly for nostalgia, possibly because the “ice spoon” still was great at its job. Eventually the rule became Julep for stirred cocktails with no bits in them, Hawthorne for shaken ones.

That line up became the Murder’s Row of tools. The muddler crushed loaf sugar, herbs, and fruits. The bar spoon, with its long, swirled handle spun the ingredients together and chilled the drink. The jigger made it easier to create the same drink in any bar. The mixing and shaking vessels combined all the ingredients into something of uniform flavor. And the strainer kept the ice and other small pieces in the mixing tin while the good stuff flowed into a glass. Cocktail historian David Wondrich stated as much in a conversation we had about the topic: “The basic bartender kit was was set in the early 1900s. The materials have gotten better, but the basics are the same.” Which means that the tools being used in 2018, with a few exceptions, would be still be recognized by the likes of Harry Craddock as he went from bottle to bottle. The only two Wondrich mentions that have seen much change are the jigger and the shaker.

Japanese innovations arrive stateside

 19th century jiggers, photo by Brian Petro

19th century jiggers, photo by Brian Petro

Initially, the only thing that bartenders had to measure with were other glasses. The first jiggers were little more than 2 oz./ 60 mL metal versions of sherry glasses. The double sided jigger, patented in 1893, changed that. The origin of the word, like anything from the 19th century cocktail movement, is lost in time. One theory is that it refers to a “jiggar boss” - someone who went to all the men working on a site and gave out their ration of liquor for the day. It has also been linked to a small measure of liquid, close to a gill (4 oz./118 ml). It is a small, two-sided measuring cup, made of anything from copper to plastic. Multiple jiggers were needed when they first hit the market to get a full range of measurements. They were usually made with cheap metal, so they were never incredibly durable. According to Wondrich, they did not really get an upgrade until the 2000s. “Jiggers up to 2000 were just unacceptable. It is really in the last five years, since Milk & Honey focused on them, did they begin to really improve.” That is when Cocktail Kingdom introduced the Japanese style jigger to the United States. “Japan is not a disposable culture. They use tools that are accurate and of a higher quality,” Wondrich stated when we spoke. He explained they did not make cocktails until after the Americans came in the 1950s. When they discovered it, they crafted all of their tools based on American versions, but with more accuracy. Which is why their jigger is tall, and not wide.

 shaker, via US Patent Office

shaker, via US Patent Office

The other thing the Japanese adopted was the three-part shaker. This is the most complex evolution of the cocktail shaker, and it predates the jigger. The earliest one that we would recognize the most today was patented in 1884 by Edward Hauk. It is of the three-piece variety, known as a Cobbler shaker, with a base tin, a lid with a strainer on it, and a cap to keep it all in. There were some other more ...interesting... varieties. Since the beginning, combinations of metal and glass have been explored. The first shakers were all glass. You read that right. And they were ill fitting glasses at that. American ingenuity being what it is, saw someone use a bar glass to cover a metal mixing tin, and the Boston shaker was born. This is still being used in bars all over the world, since it is pretty easy to assemble in a pinch. When American bartenders fled the country at the dawn of Prohibition, they found an all-metal French, or Parisienne, shaker waiting for them. It looked like the Cobbler shaker, but without the built in strainer. There is an elegance to it that the Boston and Cobbler shakers did not have, not to mention better safety since nothing could shatter and potentially cause substantial injuries.

Shake rattle and roll

After World War 2, the cocktail shaker became a work of art. The Cobbler shaker was the ruler of the roost, but with a twist. It kept its metal top, but the base became glass. That glass was often designed in the aesthetic of the era with simple cocktail recipes on it. Glass was the preferred material for mixing. David Embury, on page 45 in the venerable The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, states that “since metal is a better conductor of heat than glass and, therefore, the ice in a metal shaker will melt and dilute the drinks quicker than in a glass shaker, I recommend glass shakers.” During the dark cocktail days of the 1970s and '80s, the shaker went back to its Boston roots. Besides, who was making classic Daiquiris or Ramos Gin Fizzes? The shakers became utilitarian. The only flair was whatever juggling the bartender did before he made your Alabama Slammer.

 flash mixer, photo courtesy Brian Maxwell

flash mixer, photo courtesy Brian Maxwell

The versions we are using today tend to be metal on metal. “People do not need to see what is in the tin when you are making the drink,” commented Wondrich. He continued to discuss how metal on metal is more durable and is thermally more efficient. Especially if you are trying to keep it consistent. Glass retains heat much better than metal does, which means metal provides more control over how much dilution you want in your cocktail.

Modern cocktail tools are still old school

 photo by Brian Maxwell

photo by Brian Maxwell

While we have come a long way from where crafting cocktails started in the 19th century, the tools have not changed much. That burst of ingenuity that brought forth all the wonderful tools we use today has sustained the craft for over a century. Even some of the more obscure tools, like ones for carving ice and bitters shakers, are making their way back behind the modern bar. Industry professionals that reach for a bar spoon are using the same type of spoon that bartenders during the Gilded Age would have used. Though the tools we have now would have the flair that would make one of those diamond studded ladies and gents proud.