By CHARLES PASSY Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 17, 2004; Page W4
So you've planned the perfect New Year's party, stocking your home bar with all the necessary spirits to toast the arrival of 2005. There's just one problem: To make any cocktail more complicated than a gin and tonic, you're going to need some bartending tools. And after years of improvising with wooden spoons, blender cups and kitchen strainers, it may well be high time to outfit your bar with the kinds of shakers, stirrers, jiggers, knives and other implements used by professional barkeeps.
But can these home kits really set you on your way to serving a cocktail that would make Nick and Nora proud? To find out, we purchased five kits and headed to one of our favorite nightspots -- the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth, Fla., a renowned blues club that has a menu of more than 130 classic cocktails. Owner Russell Hibbard and veteran bartender Beth Becker put the products to the test. To do so, they made three different drinks, each requiring different tools, with every kit: a "built" cocktail that's assembled in the glass in which it's served (in this case, the classic Old Fashioned, which combines fruit, sugar and bitters -- mashed together -- with rye or bourbon); a shaken cocktail (the Negroni, a mix of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth); and a stirred cocktail (the Brandy Stinger, a mix of brandy and crème de menthe). To be sure, tests like these come with their own set of occupational hazards: We kept our consumption of said cocktails to sips only to ensure that we judged the last kit in our roundup with as clear an eye as we did the first.
The first lesson we learned is that an attractive kit is not necessarily a practical one.
Take the Metrokane Complete Bartender Barware Set ($69.95) from BeverageFactory.com:
It's a sleekly designed set, with a bullet-shaped shaker and other smart-looking accessories (jigger, knife, stirrer, can opener and ice tongs). But the tools themselves bordered on the absurd: The jigger -- or shot measure -- was attached to a handle, making it resemble a measuring cup on a stick -- and about as hard to use. The knife, though sharp, was too short to quickly cut up larger fruit, like an orange. And the shaker held a mere 16 ounces -- little more than a drink or two. Oh, and there was no muddler (a mashing implement essential for making an Old-Fashioned), so our testers resorted to using the handle of one of the tools. "That's a real problem," Mr. Hibbard said.
Missing tools were also a problem with the Bar Tool Set with Ice Bucket ($44.95) from Cooking.com.
The kit also lacked a muddler, as well as a shaker -- although we were able to purchase one separately (for $24.95) that matched the set. True, the kit had an ice bucket, which is separate from the caddy that holds the tools, but it was so ridiculously small that it served no real function. Worst of all, the jigger, also attached to a handle, measured liquids in centiliters (cc's), not ounces. "It disqualifies it for fitting any recipes we're doing," Mr. Hibbard said. Other kits came closer to the mark.
The Hampton Forge "Grande Mirror" 11-Piece Bar Set ($39.99) from SmartBargains won points for sheer variety.
It included ice tongs, knife, jigger, bottle/can opener, cocktail spoon, strainer and waiter's-style (or folding) corkscrew, all with a stand, plus a shaker and a decent-sized ice bucket. Mr. Hibbard pointed to one small but impressive detail: The knife had a built-in pick, which is handy if you are trying to fish olives out of a jar. But the set lost points because it was difficult to separate the shaker's top and bottom sections from each other (they would become almost fused together during shaking). Going Retro
The Godinger Stainless Steel 9-Piece Bar Set ($44.99 on sale) from Macys.com
was a classy, retro-minded affair, with a separate, high-quality shaker and several tools (strainer, jigger, bottle opener, stirrer and knife) that fit on a stand. It also included an ice bucket, along with a serving tray -- a good option for presenting your drinks in style. In all, this kit is our Best Value.
But for Best Overall, Bar Supply Warehouse's Ultimate Bar Kit ($100)
more than lived up to its title. Granted, unlike some other models we tested, the kit lacked a stand for its tools, but that's partly because so many tools were included: four "Store 'n' Pour" containers (especially good for juice), two types of corkscrews (one waiter's style and one winged, with the little arms that rise when you twist it into a cork), two shaker tins, a strainer, a cutting board, a paring knife, an ice scoop, a bar spoon, a lemon/lime squeezer, napkin and condiment holders, and, yes, the much-sought muddler, among other items. Just as important: The tools were truly tools of the trade -- in other words, the same items found in Mr. Hibbard's bar. ("That's all pro gear," he said.) To top it off, a bartender's black book with hundreds of drink recipes was included, guaranteeing you could put the tools to use for many New Year's parties to come. Bar Supply Warehouse The Ultimate Bar Kit, $99.99 877-673-7676 barsupplywarehouse.com QUALITY: Best Overall. The basics were all there -- shakers tins, jigger, knife -- plus plenty of extras. Gear was all professional quality. SHIPPING COST/TIME: Rush shipping was $28.45 (plus $5 handling charge); took three business days. Standard shipping costs $7.99. RETURN POLICY: Defective items can be returned within 30 days of date of sale, but you pay shipping. PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: With our order confirmation, we were eligible for two free bonus items. We got a tee-shirt and a margarita sponge. COMMENT: "Items were packed loosely, and the paring knife was uncovered. (Company was not aware of this until we called, and may correct.) Macys.com Godinger Stainless Steel 9-Piece Bar Set, $44.99 800-289-6229 macys.com QUALITY: Best Value. A solid set with many key items. Comes with a serving tray. Jigger was attached to a handle, making it slightly harder to use. SHIPPING COST/TIME: We paid $14.95 for rush delivery within three business days; our order arrived on time. Standard shipping costs $6.95. RETURN POLICY: No time frame given. You pay shipping, unless company erred. Items can be returned to Macy's stores. PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: No problems placing order online. Site spells out shipping information and return policies very clearly. COMMENT: When we purchased our bar kit, the price was $49.99, marked down from $100. No wonder it's such a good value. BeverageFactory.com Metrokane Compleat Bartender Barware Set, $69.95 800-710-9939 beveragefactory.com QUALITY: Striking looking, but not very practical. The knife was especially difficult to use. Shaker was too small to make enough drinks for a crowd. SHIPPING COST/TIME: It cost us $18.20 for rush shipping in three business days; our order arrived a couple of days late. RETURN POLICY: Item must be in new condition and returned within 30 days. Call for a return authorization. You pay shipping. PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: We called, as shipping options weren't clear on site. (Site has since improved.) Company failed to send a promised e-mail updating us on order status. COMMENT: Company just introduced product to its line; when we told them about our experience, we were surprised to learn they hadn't even tested set themselves. Cooking.com Artland Bar Tool Set with Ice Bucket, $44.95 800-663-8810 Cooking.com QUALITY: Tiny ice bucket. Jigger was in cc's, not ounces. No shaker, but we ordered a matching one for an additional $24.95. SHIPPING COST/TIME: Rush shipping cost $26.25 within five business days; our order arrived on time. Standard shipping costs $10.95. RETURN POLICY: No time frame given. You pay shipping; contact company if order is wrong or damaged. PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Company also steered us in the direction of the matching shaker to complete our set. COMMENT: Like some of our other merchants, this retailer carried a variety of bar tool sets from different manufacturers. SmartBargains Hampton Forge "Grande Mirror" 11-Piece Bar Set, $39.99 866-692-2742 smartbargains.com QUALITY: Includes everything from ice tongs to a corkscrew with knife. Ice bucket's big enough for a bottle of wine. Shaker was hard to pry apart, however. SHIPPING COST/TIME: We paid $19.60 for rush shipping within four business days; our order arrived on time. Standard shipping costs $6.95. RETURN POLICY: Item must be in original condition and returned within 30 days of receipt. You pay shipping. PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: We had to establish a password to place online order -- a step we'd rather avoid. COMMENT: To solve the shaker dilemma, we applied a little vegetable oil. It helped, but the shakers in our other kits worked much better.