Most bartenders hate a muddler. If you really want to darken your average bartender’s day, order a bunch of mojitos or caipirinhas on a busy Friday night. Muddling mint and limes is too time-consuming, they’ll complain. Muddling with sugar or simple syrup is too sticky, they’ll whine.
A couple years ago, at Tales of the Cocktail, the huge annual spirits conference in New Orleans, I listened to a panel of bartenders from around the world plotting a movement to eliminate tedious muddling in high-volume bars. “In Europe,” said one British star-tender, witheringly, “we’re over fruit.”
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).
With ginger and with all other fruits and vegetables, such as berries and watermelon and cucumbers, feel free to pulverize away. Work those guns.
Perhaps because of the anti-muddler lobby, I hadn’t had a muddled drink in a while. As the weather turned warm, it occurred to me that what I really wanted was a caipirinha.
For me, a caipirinha is more of a technique than any particular recipe. I started with my basic one, cutting a lime into eighths and muddling it in a large old-fashioned glass with a tablespoon of turbinado sugar. Toss in two ounces (or so) of cachaca and fill the glass with crushed ice. Cover the glass with a shaker, give a quick shake and pour all of the ingredients, including the ice, back into the drink.
Just to refresh: Cachaca is rum’s Brazilian cousin. It is made with fresh sugar cane juice distilled at a low temperature, which gives it a bit of wild, vegetal character along with the balancing sweetness. I opt for premium brands such as Leblon, Beleza Pura, Cabana and Boca Loca.
What I’ve come to love about cachaca is how amazingly well it plays with all sorts of big-flavored fruits, spices and herbs. I will be making the accompanying recipes (see Page E7) all summer long, with combinations of lime, ginger and juniper; tangerine and tarragon; watermelon and mint; blueberries and mint; and blackberries and red wine.
Cachaca is the spirit of choice for most of those mash-ups. They are only the beginning. I’ll also be spending the summer experimenting with other fresh fruit-and-herb combos. Although I have a slight preference for cachaca, the rum-based mojito is also a wonderful foundation.
“I love seeing what’s in the farmers market,” Haasarud says. “You can make a great mojito out of anything fresh.”
When ordering caipirinhas and mojitos in bars, be sure to heed Thomson’s words of warning: “They are so popular, and people think they can order them everywhere. But the simplest drinks are the easiest ones to mess up.”
So if a bartender winces or looks as if he wants to throttle you when you ask for a mojito or caipirinha, remember: You’ll probably be better off making them at home, anyway.
A buyer’s guide to muddlers (pictured above): At far left, ridged sheesham wood muddler, $24; hand-turned models in curly maple and cherry (second from left and far right) by Benjamin Leatham of Studio Niche in Hagerstown, $30; all are available at the Hour in Alexandria (703-224-4687). Center: stainless-steel and silicone, $17.10, and dark wood, $2.95, both from Broadway Panhandler in New York (866-266-5927).
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/boozecolumnist.