Without these items, all hope is lost. With these items, a good time can be had by all.
This is a living guide. It will evolve with fashion and whim.
The photos featured are of gear I own. There are links to actual products that can be purchased via the Internet. I earn nothing from these links but the satisfaction that the reader is not buying crap.
And so we begin, in no particular order.
The Minimum Capability Cocktail Kit
I have owned and used a lot of cocktail shakers. Most are awful, but the major flaws come in only two varieties. The first is that separating the parts of the shaker is difficult. The second is that the built-in straining apparatus clogs in use.
The Koriko set of 2 weighted tins suffers from neither problem. Just two cups, there’s nothing to clog. Well-designed and both being of the same material, the cups do not bind. Moderate pressure seals the tins together. Minimal effort separates them. Until convinced otherwise, I am confident in stating that this is the best cocktail shaker set on the planet. It costs less than $20.
This being the bare minimum guide, a shaker is expected to provide several uses. The first is, well, shaking. The other important duty, however, is for production of stirred drinks. There is nothing wrong with making a stirred drink in one of the mixing tins (pro tip: one drink in the small half, two drinks in the big half).
With more conviction that anything else on this page, I recommend these mixing tins. They work great, are inexpensive, and are generally indestructible.
I do not feel comfortable recommending an alternative, just buy these.
Getting the cocktail out of the mixing tin requires straining through a Hawthorne strainer. My strainer of choice for the Koriko tins right now is the Uber Bar Tools StrainRay. This is not he greatest strainer in the world and it is about as brutish as they come. It is durable. It is sized well for the Koriko tins. In a pinch it can be used for self-defense. What I like about this strainer is that it’s hard to use incorrectly. A lot of smaller and more delicate strainers require more technique or attention to detail. What I dislike about this strainer is that it rusts. I would love to replace this recommendation with a better option if somebody recommends one.
My second favorite option right now is the AG Hawthorne Strainer. It comes in at half the price of the StrainRay. It is a bit small for the Koriko tins, and thus requires some attention to detail for proper use.
The Hawthorne strainer separates a cocktail from big chunks of ice. For a stirred drink, this may be all that is necessary. Shaking a drink, however, produces a bunch of tiny little crystals. Tiny little ice crystals should not appear in a cocktail without intent. The fine mesh strainer sits between the Hawthorne strainer and the service vessel and holds those pesky ice chunks that make it through the first line of defense.
A great double strainer can be had for less than $20 in the RSVP Endurance Conical Mesh Strainer. One can pick between 3”, 4”, and 5” depending on preferences. The 3” size is suitable as a first stab in the dark. The larger the model, the more likely it is to contain an entire drink if it doesn’t strain quickly (a good capability to have in a pinch).
Citrus is perhaps the most important cocktail ingredient that does not contain liquor. Juicing citrus is a pain without a citrus juicer. While not always the more efficient or thorough method, the Mexican Beehive Juicer is the way to go. The model pictured above works great for limes and moderately-sized lemons. The downside is that it’s made of burnished aluminum: Don’t put this in the dishwasher. Also, a lot of the hardware on the device will rust. It’s not a great tool, but most alternatives are also less than optimal. Buy this one for now.
The Amco Enameled Aluminum Squeezer, Orange is pretty awful, but still manages to be my second-place recommendation. Despite shoddy manufacture and flaking enamel, it remains intact. In addition to still being able to juice limes and lemons, this adds the flexibility of juicing all but the largest of oranges and some small grapefruits. And it’s less than $10.
Unburnished or uncoated aluminum juicers can be robust, but interactions between the aluminum and high-acid juices are not the greatest thing.
The Norpro Stainless-Steel Citrus Juice Press is stainless steel, so that’s good. Unfortunately, the handle retains water (or far nastier things), the narrow handle is painful with repeated use, and it too is somewhat small for larger lemons.
The Norpro Lime Juicer works great for the first key lime or two. Mine cracked into two pieces after moderate use. Avoid.
A knife is essential in cocktail preparation. Citrus has to be cut in half or wedges. Garnishes need to be trimmed. Peels need to be created and coins fabricated. Stubborn bottles need to be opened. Turf needs to be defended.
For cocktails, a paring knife is where the magic happens. A knife that is agile with a sharp edge and a thin blade is key. Get a Victorinox 3-1/4-Inch Paring Knife. It is inexpensive and easy to sharpen or replace.
A reasonable alternative is almost any sharp paring knife. If the knife is not sharp, it is dangerous and useless.
Measuring is a big part of successful cocktail preparation. Accuracy is in large part unimportant, but precision is crucial. A cocktail may call for ounces, parts, dashes, t, T, or mL (among other things). With very rare exceptions, none of this matters.
What is important is upholding the ratio between the ingredients. I am fond of the iSi Flex-It Mini Measuring Cup. It’s about $4, measures quantities up to about 2 ounces in varying units, and makes working with half-measures and third measures easy. This is less common than one might expect. It’s also impossible to break these things. Any opportunity to avoid glass in cocktail preparation should be taken.
With that said, mini glass measures are not a bad alternative. My go-to for a long while was the Espresso Parts 4oz Lined Measuring Glass. The OXO Measuring Beakers look decent, though I have no personal experience with them.
A mixing spoon is necessary for mixing, drink layering, and measuring. Get one. It is important the spoon is comfortable (stirring a drink takes 45+ seconds) and somewhat long (makes stirring in a tall tin or mixing glass easier). The 33.5cm Stainless Steel Hoffman Spoon is my favorite so far. I am not sure it is worth $20, but then I have not found something cheaper that is quite as satisfying or useful.
There are alternatives, but they are bad. A Winco 11-Inch Mixing Spoon costs an order of magnitude less. The spoon is too big, the ribbon will cut your hands, and the balance is all wrong.
All of the essential mixing spoon tasks can be achieved through other means. A butter knife does about as well at stirring a drink (albeit with a bit more effort). Drink layering is stupid and nobody cares. Measuring can be done with something meant for measuring.
Still, I include a good mixing soon in the essential set. It makes enough difference in quality of life that I do not feel comfortable moving it to the “nice to have” tier.
Grab Your Towel and Don’t Panic
A towel is about the most massively useful thing a mixologist can have. A good towel cleans bottle mouths, catches spills, hides sins, and provides a working surface. Better than a towel is several towels. If it matters, I am quite fond of these Bleachsafe 13x13 Black Bar Towels.