One of the first tools created for the purpose of cocktail-making, the muddler has drawn flavour from fruit, herbs and peels since the 18th century. We take a look at the history of this unassuming piece of kit – the design of which has remained largely unchanged since its inception – divulge muddler technique tips, and share recipes to try at home…
Rounded at one end and flat at the other, the primitive-looking muddler predates cocktail shakers, bar spoons, and even legendary bartender Jerry Thomas. Initially called a ‘toddy stick’, the device was an essential tool in the 18th century backbar, where it was used to prepare the sugar and spices that went into its namesake drink (the Toddy, of course), among other things. “The toddy stick was used for pretty much everything – from breaking sugar away from the sugarloaf to stirring drinks to grinding spices,” says Rewfus Brode, co-founder of The Cocktail Delivery Company and The 43 Club. “It was originally a bit of a jack of all trades, but when ice began to become more widely available, the style of cocktails changed.”
Soon after the advent of commercial ice, bartenders found that ice-cold tipples worked better with simple syrup – rather than sugar cubes – and also required slimmer bar tools for stirring, says Brode. Rather than find itself banished from the bartender toolkit, the toddy stick came to fulfil a niche but essential function: muddling fruits, herbs and peels to extract their oils and juice.
Renamed the muddler, its simple design remains as relevant today. It’s the key to a fruity Raspberry Bellini and a fresh, bright Mojito. “When used correctly, a muddler gives you the ability to access flavours and aromas that wouldn’t be achievable without it,” says Brode. “It could be the subtlest of flavours but it allows you to take a cocktail on a journey – a sign of a great drink to me.”
There’s more to the practice than first meets the eye. Muddle too vigorously, and you’ll wreck your cocktail before you’ve even added any liquid ingredients. “It can leave your drink with an overly bitter taste,” says Yoann Tarditi head bartender at The Lobby Bar, London Edition. “For the best technique, push down firmly and twist the muddler – never bash! And use a sturdy glass for muddling ingredients, nothing too delicate that could risk cracking.”
Aside from a robust cocktail glass, you need the right style of muddler. Today, there are different shapes and materials available – flat, toothed, wood, plastic, stainless steel – and each has its unique benefits and drawbacks. Wood is traditional and looks classy, but this material needs TLC while cleaning. “It doesn’t really like getting cleaned in the dishwasher,” Brode says. “Hand-wash and dry it as quick as you can to stop the rot.”
Plastic and stainless steel are more modern, but they’re also heavier and have a different feel to them. “Personally, I’m a fan of a large, chunky, plastic muddler the size of a police truncheon,” says Brode. “I used metal for a few years but when you pull that thing straight out of the dishwasher, you need to call A&E. I got bored of scalding my hands so I went with plastic.”
There’s also the shape to consider. Toothed is best for fruit and spices, while flat is ideal for herbs, he says. “If you can only get one muddler then always go for flat, as it’s much more versatile,” Brode suggests. “Trying to use a toothed one with sugar is a painful experience. The length of the muddler is also important – so often I have seen bartenders using a muddler that isn’t long enough, and they end up with their knuckles in the glass.”
Speaking of technique – it’ll vary depending on the ingredient you’re muddling. “For herbs like basil, tear them before dropping into your glass. If you don’t, you could end up over-muddling,” says Brode. “For sugar, a flat-bottomed muddler is best for this, with a wee touch of liquid. When muddling fruit you can enjoy yourself a little more. You still want to be careful not to overdo it, but they usually need a little longer.”
Still unsure? Trust your senses. “Using a muddler like cooking,” Brode continues. “As soon as you smell the aroma of garlic, it’s saying ‘I’m ready’. It’s the same when using the muddler. As soon as the aroma hits your nose, it’s time to stop.” And make sure you use the right end – the rounded part is for the palm of your hands, he adds.
Whatever you do, be gentle – that counts for your non-muddling hand, too. Watch where and how you grip the glass. “Don’t hold the glass by its lip or anywhere near the top,” says Will Rogers, head of bars for Kricket in London. “Firstly, no one wants your hands and fingers where they are about to drink from, but also if you slip you could break the glass and cause yourself some damage.”
Taking good care of your muddler is also crucial to the flavour of your drink – and the one after it, too. “Clean your muddler after each time you use it,” Rogers adds. “You don’t want to be muddling chilli for one drink then using the same unwashed muddler for something completely different. Because you are muddling fresh produce the residue will be all over your muddler. Running under a tap will suffice.”
Ready to flex your new skills? You’ll find two classic muddled cocktail recipes by Brode, below.
Place a napkin over top of glass with a demerara sugar cube on top. Coat the cube with bitters, drop it into the glass and introduce a dash of bourbon. Using the muddler, break up the sugar cube and add an orange twist, skin side up. Gently muddle the twist and sugar with no more than three twists. Remove the twist and continue to muddle the sugar until it’s dissolved. Then add ice to the glass along with 15ml of bourbon. Stir with a bar spoon, and after around 15 to 20 stirs, add another 15ml bourbon. Repeat the process until 60ml bourbon has been added in total. Garnish with another orange twist.
50ml Woodford Reserve bourbon
8 mint leaves
10ml sugar syrup
Mint sprig to garnish
Add the mint leaves and sugar syrup to the glass. If you’re using a flat-bottomed muddler, turn the mint no more than twice. Add 50ml bourbon, top the drink with crushed ice, and churn the mix with a bar spoon. Cap with more crushed ice and garnish with a mint sprig.
A selection of bar equipment including muddlers from Urban Bar is available from Master of Malt.