A few weeks ago, I had the sad misfortune to be seated at a bar. Normally I find this sort of occasion to be pleasant, but it was clear that whoever was in charge of training this young man had done a very, very bad job.
I watched as he grabbed a handful of limes from the garnish tray, filled the glass with ice, cupped his (hopefully clean) hand around the mouth of the glass, and, inserting a wooden muddler between his thumb and forefinger he began to pound the limes and ice cubes into some sort of citrus slurry. I cringed as the mixture repeatedly splashed against the palm of his hand and back into the glass. He then proceeded to add what I can only assume was tequila and triple sec, though at this point I had lost all interest in anything this bar was selling.
Muddling is a simple technique, and is terribly overthought by many bartenders, particularly those newer to the trade. So I’ll try to sum it up as succinctly as I can. When we muddle something, we are most often doing one of two things: rapidly infusing some sort of flavor into a simple syrup as one would do with the mint in a Mojito, or making an a-la-minute puree, as one might do to make a raspberry margarita. Sure, there are special exceptions such as the Caipirinha, but for the most part that’s it.
And for each job, there is a different type of muddler. Muddling fruits and vegetables into a puree requires a pretty hefty tool, so you want to look for a heavy wooden or food-safe plastic muddler. Place the ingredients you want to puree, without ice or any additional liquid, into the bottom half of your shaker and slowly but forcefully press the ingredients over and over again until smooth.
For the times we’ll be infusing flavor (usually an herb) into simple syrup, we want to use a lighter, more delicate touch. The chlorophyll found in leaves can be bitter when over extracted, so we don’t want to pulverize the herbs. Look for a bar spoon with a disc end (you can skip those goofy spoons with the trident spear on the end, a disc for muddling will be more useful) and letting the weight of the spoon do most of the work, gently apply enough pressure to infuse the herb’s oils into the sugar. A gentle press will be sufficient to create a fragrant cocktail.
Oh, and one last remark: you might come across someone in your cocktail travels that will attempt to “inform” you that a proper Old Fashioned or Sazerac must be made with a sugar cube muddled with a splash of water. To that, feel free to reply that they’re only making simple syrup complicated, that you find their “dedication” irritating, and that I told you to stick to regular simple syrup. You can trust me on this one.