Is keeping a good set of bar tools a lost art? Maybe it’s just me but I get the sense that it’s not what it used to be.
Growing up, my parents had a special drawer full of them and an area set aside on the counter for ones that were used so often there was no point in even putting them in the drawer. They also had a backup set in the cabinet below the drawer that someone had given them for Christmas, apparently kept around for times when the first string bar tools could not perform their duties. They had more than one martini shaker and lots of tumblers and beer mugs in a cabinet specifically for drink glasses. They had two ice buckets and tongs. And a bar sink. And a drinking problem. Man, they had it all back then.
What am I talking about? They still live in that house.
It seems almost ridiculous now when there’s a whole TV channel practically devoted to how to reduce clutter. An extra set of bar tools? When you’re a serious drinker, it makes sense.
Everyone knew the serrated knife that was for cutting limes. When it got washed, it went back into the bar tool drawer. You didn’t use it to cut peppers or tomatoes. It was for limes, fool.
Yes, this was how I was raised, but as an adult I haven’t practiced the same level of commitment to the art of bar tool curation. For too long I’ve relied on a haphazard collection of utensils drafted as needed for crafting cocktails. Bar tools shouldn’t be multi-purpose. I use a steak knife to cut limes, for Christ’s sake. I’ve strayed too far from my roots.
To better equip myself as a the kind of drinker that made the middle part of the previous century great (assuming you throw out all the racism and misogyny), I’m slowly trying to accumulate a hand-picked collection of best-of-breed bar tools. No, they’re not going to match, but they’re going to help make awesome drinks.
If you look on Amazon, you’ll see that most of the stuff commercially available is either crappy or needlessly expensive. In my view, rather than get some prefab set, it’s more personal to collect tools one at a time. Plus, a lot of the great mixologists of the middle part of the previous century are now dead from cirrhosis of the liver so their tools are out there right now, looking for good homes.
To that point, I recently bought a Tap-Icer off eBay for five dollars.
You probably don’t know what a Tap-Icer is because when you need crushed ice, you let a machine do all the hard work. The cocktail maker of your grandfather’s era didn’t have a crushed ice dispenser on the door of his refrigerator. He had to crush his own ice, feel it break and get his hands cold and wet when he put it in the glass. The Tap-Icer is a clever piece of 1940s technology that easily satisfies all your crushed ice needs and will never require a repair visit from Sears.
According to the patent, the Tap-Icer is “an ice disintegrating utensil”. The flexible arm of the Tap-Icer swings its disc-shaped head in a larger arc than a rigid arm would, allowing it to deliver a blow to the ice with more force. It’s not rocket science, but it is physics and once you get the motion down, it works. One blow shatters an ice cube into multiple pieces.
I only realized last year that I had a family connection to the Tap-Icer when I asked my parents if they had an extra one lying around. They didn’t, but noted that they knew the inventor of the Tap-Icer, Frank W. Earnest. Earnest was a friend of my grandfather, the two having attended high school together during a little thing called the first World War. By the 1940s when he invented the Tap-Icer, Earnest was a mining engineer and president of a Pennsylvania miners association.
Can you imagine how much miners in the mid-1900s drank? And why?
Undoubtedly used to crushing things, something as brittle as ice must have been trivial to him. He probably crushed it in his bare hands and just made the Tap-Icer for other people.
Here’s a picture of mine, not exactly mint but in the box.
If it looks a little scary, remember this particular model dates to at least the Korean War. The Tap-Icer later got a makeover and you can pick up a cleaner, more Mad Men-style version through a few places online. I just wanted the same one my parents had.
Sadly, the only way to get a Tap-Icer is “previously owned” because they don’t make it anymore and probably haven’t since the Johnson administration. With the advent of the crushed ice dispenser, people apparently decided they no longer needed to rough up their silky hands by crushing their own ice. Which is fine. It’s not going to change the taste of the drink.
But making a drink is more than just minimizing the amount of time it takes to combine the ingredients, isn’t it? I’ll spare you the love making analogy, but you know what I’m talking about. Spend enough time with your bar tools and you’ll find you’re more invested in what you’re drinking. It doesn’t have to be about crushing ice, it can be muddling or rinding or squeezing your own juice (again, not talking about sex, OK?).
They don’t need to be fancy and they don’t need to be expensive or complicated. They do need to be accessible, functional and, if at all possible, personal. I’m still working on my collection, but I’m lucky enough to have at least one bar tool with a story behind it. And stories are what keep the cocktails flowing.