Shakers, jiggers, muddlers, strainers: bartending demands a staggering number of hyper-specific tools. Unsurprisingly, high-end cocktail bars are jammed with Japanese crystal glasses and copper shakers, even if in the fast-moving rush of service, a bartender is just as likely to reach for a beaten-up measuring cup. For Cocktail Week, Eater photographed five of Austin's finest bartenders with their favorite tools of the trade.
1. The juicer
Fresh squeezed juice is an essential ingredient for many for Midnight Cowboy's drinks, which means head bartender Michael Phillips spends a lot of time with the juicer. For weekend prep, he'll spend an hour juicing lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit. Every week, the bar goes through about 120-140 lemons alone. The juice is bottled in old liquor bottles, labeled with masking tape and a Sharpie. "I'm not going to lie," Phillips says, "I lose my mind if my Sharpie goes missing."
After years churning through acidy fruit, the juicer has taken a beating. "When we opened, it was all chrome and shiny," Phillips says. "Now it's tarnished. The springs broke off about a year ago. She's a rickety thing, but she gets the job done."
2. THE STRAINER
Firehouse Lounge's head bartender Matt Thompson has been behind the bar "long enough to know better," and he admits his favorite tool isn't exactly a stunner. It's a broken fine strainer without a handle. But the lack of a handle gives the strainer a "super rad" secret power - you can drop it in a glass and strain hands-free. At Firehouse, that's especially useful. The speakeasy hidden behind a sliding bookcase serves craft cocktails, but does the business of a volume bar. Thompson writes a cocktail list focused on the classics, all of which he wants to turn around in 3-4 minutes. "It takes a certain style of bartender to work here," Thompson says, "You have to be able to manage your time and really know booze."
In such a fast-moving bar, something like a hands-free strainer takes on an absurd importance. The strainer lives at Thompson's station and, "if it goes missing, there will be a meeting. I will call someone at 5 a.m. asking where it is."
3. the barback
Bartenders can hoard all the fancy gear they want, but without someone to haul ice and keep the juice stocked, they can't do their jobs. Before becoming a bartender, Kyle Gundlach worked as a barback, so he knows firsthand the amount of work goes on behind the scenes. He learned the trade as a barback by making simple drinks when the bar was slammed and slowly but surely absorbing recipes and techniques.
The barback he relies on now is Alfonso Castillo. He's a graduate student in English literature at St. Edwards, and spends his nights running ice, restocking the bar, and making sure there's an adequate supply of glasses. Weather Up stores their house-made ice on their second floor, so he's up and down stairs constantly. The physical intensity is not for everyone, but he loves his job: he calls the Weather Up team "a family."
4. THE UTILITY BAG
In terms of tool-as-fetish-object, Peche owner Rob Pate's booze utility bag takes the cake. Back when he received what he calls his "Meehan bag" six years ago, the cultishly loved object had to be a gift. Pate refused to even share who gave it to him. Now, the bag, designed in partnership with cocktail pioneer Jim Meehan, is available online for just under a thousand bucks. "It's what bartenders get when they win the lottery," Pate says. "Whenever I bring it in, all my bartenders get jealous."
Pate only busts his bag out "about three times a year" for events, and stocks it depending what he needs. After almost thirty years behind the bar and six as the owner of craft cocktail destination Peche, he's accumulated an impressive array of additional tools to pack up. Here's an inventory, from left to right, of what was in his bag for its portrait: absinthe spoons, julep strainer, Japanese crystal mixing glass, muddler, hand juicer, pitter, zester, jiggers, towels, nutmeg grinder, julep cup, copper shaker, tweezers, cutting boards, and a busty tiki cup.
Patrons drink at a different pace in restaurants than they do in bars, and Melissa James suspected the ice was melting too quickly in Odd Duck's drinks. So, she called in an expert: an ice sculptor. Now, Odd Duck receives 900 specially filtered and cut "big rocks" from Full Spectrum Ice every week. The clear, perfectly square ice is featured in any drinks that call for a big hunk of frozen water, including when customers order straight liquor on the rocks. James says some diners have kept the same rock over the course of their entire meal.
For James, ice straddles the line between tool and ingredient. In the case of the big custom-ordered rocks, the point is for as little of the water as possible to melt into the drink, pushing it further into the "tool" category. The ice isn't cheap - it costs the restaurant seventy-five cents a cube - but Odd Duck didn't raise drink prices, nor would they ever consider charging patrons extra for fancy ice. "This is just a tool for getting the drinks right," James says. "Before, the ice was the only thing that was not perfect. Now, it is."