When I first started tending bar in the early 1990s, occasionally one would walk behind a bar and there would be this red-colored stick called a muddler that would be used in making one drink, and one drink only: the Old Fashioned cocktail. No one really knew what to do with a muddler in the early 90s, as bartending was still a few years away from having the craft resurrected. Now, muddling at least some drinks is de rigeur in most bars and restaurants. The rise of drinks (like the mojito) and the bartenders’ willingness to experiment with fresh herbs, citrus, and spices means that the art of muddling a drink properly has returned to its proper place of prominence in cocktail circles.
So how does muddling work and what is the proper technique? First off, it might be easier to explain what isn’t proper technique.
There is a habit among lazy or unknowing bartenders to perform what is called the “Portland muddle.” This technique is when a bartender add some fresh ingredients to a mixing glass (like lime wedges and mint, for instance), fills the mixing glass with ice, and proceeds to use the muddler to smash the ice into small chips and pulverize the ingredients being used in the drink. This is improper for a couple of reasons. First, with citrus, the abrasion and smashing of the ice helps release the bitter oils in the pith—which is not a good thing. Second, with delicate herbs like basil, instead of gently releasing the essential oils from the leaf into the cocktail, the leaf is bruised and damaged—it won’t contribute the same richness of flavor as a properly muddled leaf. And third, it is inherently dangerous. Smashing ice in a tempered pint glass is an easy way to break the glass and send shards of glass into your hand. The “Portland muddle” is one sign to those in-the-know that a bartender is lazy, inexperienced, or improperly trained.
To properly muddle fruit, herbs, or spices, it is important to have the glass free of ice. Muddling typically occurs as the first or second step in cocktail making. For instance, with a mojito, torn mint leaves are gently muddled at the bottom of the mixing glass to release the essential oils in the leaves. The motion is very similar to that of a cat kneading a human. The muddler is pressed down and twisted about a half turn each time, and, depending on the item being muddled (fruit generally takes more turns, herbs and spices less), four to six turns will generally suffice.
How should one pick out a muddler? Choose one that feels right to you. Look for weight, length, and composition material. While wood muddlers can be very attractive, running one through a commercial dishwasher will ruin it. Plastic muddlers aren’t as attractive, but they are durable and dishwasher safe. My two favorite producers are Mr. Muddler (http://mrmuddler.com/) and PUG! Muddlers (http://wnjones.com/pug/), both of which are the muddlers of choice among America’s top mixologists.
If you don’t own a muddler yet, pick one up and you’ll find a whole new avenue of home mixology has opened up to you. Just remember, proper technique results in better quality drinks.