Let’s Get Dorky

Bartending kit

Bartender: “Can I offer you something to drink?”

Customer: “Yes, please. 2 to 1, Tanqueray Ten, sweet, stirred, rocks, twist.”

Bartender: *Fills rocks glass with ice, fills glass with gin, tops with small amount of sweet vermouth,  rips flesh from lemon wedge, twists rind tight under bar and far away from the actual drink, serves it.*

Your job as a bartender is to understand what your customer is requesting and, more importantly, how to properly prepare the ordered cocktail. As you can see from the above example, the customer’s request was virtually ignored, not to mention the bartender’s technique was poor form at best.

At the moment you receive the order, you should be able to start preparing a list of the items needed to make this happen. Required glassware, necessary spirits, perhaps the price of that cocktail (if you happen to know that straight away), but more importantly, what tools you need. Remember, the requested preparation by the customer was “stirred.”

I will interject at this point to mention that if you happen to have arrived in an establishment that, at the very least, has no trademark red-tipped bar spoons in plain view, you’ve made your first mistake by even bothering to order something as complex as a “stirred” cocktail. Simply put, this lack of visual confirmation should tell you two things; this bar has not bothered to invest in the proper tools to make the cocktail style you seek and, more importantly, the staff behind the bar is not skilled in a manner to offer this type of service to you. I should also include, no matter how nice the establishment may seem on the outside, do not assume that you are in the presence of a barman that is skilled in these matters.

So what is a bar spoon? Why would you need one? Does anyone care? Is there a “proper” way to stir a cocktail and, if so, is this process really that important? Let’s begin by attempting to answer the age old question “Why shake, why stir?”

The goal of both shaking and stirring is primarily the chill factor. And, since shaking a cocktail provides a higher level of frigidity, shaking is usually the preferable method to use. However, there are several exceptions to this rule. My basic rule of thumb is as follows: if the cocktail contains juice, shake it. If it does not, stir it. To better explain this, consider that fruit juice itself is not translucent as plain spirits are. The goal of a stir is to retain that immaculate translucence that is so captivating with cocktails such as a Martini or a Manhattan. A stirred cocktail with fruit juice will remain, somewhat, cloudy. Remember, vermouth is a wine, not a cordial or a fruit juice. Therefore, when crafting a cocktail that contains, for example, gin and vermouth (a Martini), it should always be stirred as opposed to shaken. There will always be customers that couldn’t care less about the aesthetics of their cocktail and will request it to be shaken. Of course, this request is not wrong: it is simply the customer’s preference and should be accepted and prepared as requested.

So what are the tools required to “stir?” There are four key items required here: a) a mixing glass, b) good ice, c) a strainer, and d) a good barspoon. The proper stirring technique comes easily if the right tools are used. First, always dry pour. Never fill the vessel with ice first: spirits first, then ice. After your spirits have been poured into your mixing glass, add ice to about the three-quarter level. For beginners, I suggest holding your elbow away from your body as if parallel to the bar. The back of the spoon should remain against the inside of the glass during the entire stir. (Many barmen prefer to put a slight bend in where the head of the spoon meets the handle to create a minor angle.) Holding the spoon at the halfway point and using only your wrist, gently stir your concoction while counting to 20-30 (seconds). Avoid “hacking” or “thumping” the ice with your spoon, as you do not want ice shards in your cocktail (smaller ice melts quicker, resulting in improper dilution). A wonderful visual example of the proper stir can be viewed here. While this may be a longer process than shaking, the result is well worth the wait. When your stir is complete, place your strainer on your mixing glass and pour the liquid into properly chilled glassware, add your garnish, and serve. Note that this should all be performed within the patron’s full view.

Where do you obtain these tools? I, for one, prefer Japanese bar tools. With the setbacks such as the Temperance movement, World War I, and Prohibition, we Americans have not been able to improve our bar programs and techniques as easily as the Japanese have. Many of these tools (that myself and my fellow comrades prefer to use) can be found on one of my favorite websites called www.cocktailkingdom.com. The 30cm teardrop bar spoons are my all-time favorite. As far as mixing glasses go, Yarai glasses are also my preference. If you have the money to spend on these things, you will have spoiled yourself and will quickly understand why these tools are so superior.

But let’s travel the road of “easier to obtain” items, for now. What does one look for in a quality a bar spoon? My largest piece of advice is to avoid the previously mentioned “trademark red-tipped bar spoons.” These are, for one, not counter-weighted properly. More importantly, if you look closely at one of these you will notice that, even though they are tapered and spiraled, the spirals themselves come to a point, are squared off, and then return back to the spiral. I find this to be counter-productive as the squared-off bits prevent the spoon from spinning smoothly between your fingers. I have found that my favorite easy-to-replace bar spoon can be found at your local World Market store (usually near the wine department, and branded as World Market). Barproducts.com offers a “steel knob bar spoon” that is counter-weighted nicely and, for under $3, it’s the best bang for your buck. For the mixing glass, an old friend once advised me to use replacement beakers for French press coffee makers. I, too, will recommend this as they work wonderfully. For your strainer, I recommend a “Julep” strainer (what looks like a large spoon with holes in it), thought a Hawthorne strainer (the spring-wrapped strainer we’ve all either seen or used before) works just as well. Many purists believe, in line with the stir vs shake rule, to use a Julep for stirred and a Hawthorne for shaken.  While this is a fair rule, neither method is wrong.

After you have found the tools that best suit you, and have become comfortable with your technique, you are ready to offer a properly stirred cocktail to your guest. Remember, just like your shop teacher instructed you in Jr. High, use the right tool for the right job because, after all, your product is only as good as your foundation.

About Adam Dunbar

Adam is 1 part whiskey, 1 part gin, 1 part beer. His love for everything booze has landed him a job in which he gets paid to enjoy the fine art of drinking. Should you care to join him, you can find him behind the bar at Encore On Colfax.