Kim Haasarud is most definitely not part of this movement. “I love my muddler,” she writes in her new book, “101 Mojitos & Other Muddled Drinks” (Wiley, 2011). “Truth be told, if I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one bar tool, it would be my muddler.”
Haasarud consults and trains all over the country through her firm Liquid Architecture, where she often faces anti-muddler sentiment. “I get a lot of push-back from bartenders over muddled drinks. It’s like a four-letter word,” Haasarud told me. “But you just can’t duplicate fresh lime juice or fresh mint.”
In Washington, the king of the muddler has to be Owen Thomson, lead bartender of ThinkFoodGroup, who works the bar at Cafe Atlantico. He and his colleagues probably make more caipirinhas and mojitos than any other bartenders in the city. “All we do is muddle,” he says.
Why not just use fruit purees or juice, you might ask? “With the expression of the pith and the skin of limes or other citrus, you get a much rounder flavor,” Thomson says. “But it’s not just the flavor. You also get all the essential oils and aromatics. It’s hard to reproduce that without muddling.” Pre-made herbal syrups just don’t deliver the same aromas.
The muddler itself needn’t be fussy. Although there are a lot of fancy ones to be had, it’s not a tool to spend much money on. I have a slight preference for wooden muddlers, but stainless steel (with a plastic or silicone mashing tip) is also good, and it’s easy to clean. Even plastic muddlers will get the job done.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Thomson says. “If you don’t have one, you could even just use a wooden spoon or the end of a rolling pin.”
As for technique, Haasarud describes three specific types of muddling, depending on the ingredient. For herbs such as mint, basil and sage, press lightly to release the essential oils. “I can’t tell you how many times I witness bartenders going to town with a muddler, pulverizing the heck out of some mint. NOT NECESSARY,” she writes in the book.
With citrus, you want to cut the fruit into small chunks to make them easier to work with. Crush to extract all the juice, but be sure not to pulverize it into little pieces, which will expose the bitter pith. One other tip on limes, given to me by an old Brazilian bartender as he fixed a caipirinha: Once you slice the lime into eighths, take the knife and carefully cut off the little white strip of pith left on top, as well at the tiny ends of the peel (to reduce bitterness).