Measure for measure


Consistency is key in making good cocktails; after all, once you find the perfect way to make your Martini, you will want to be able to recreate that perfection each time, won’t you?  And one of the most important ways to ensure this is accurate and consistent measurement of your ingredients. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do this by eye, or by counting your pour time, but that is very difficult to do without years of practice (one of the very best Manhattans I ever had was mixed for me at Tokyo’s Bar Oak by their stellar barman, Hisashi Sugimoto, who did everything by eye; no measuring at all. The drink was sublime) and unlikely to be achieved by amateurs like me.

But one of the key issues in cocktails is that there is no universal standard of measure: you will come across recipes that use ounces, jiggers, ponies, measures, millilitres and sometimes even spoons. And just like home baking, if you start with one set of measurements, you need to keep using the same scale throughout the recipe, as an ounce-to-millilitre conversion may not be accurate.

So, we need measures, and we need good ones, and most helpfully, two sizes: larger and smaller, where the latter is typically half the quantity of the former. Cocktail recipes work on the principles of proportion (e.g. a Negroni is equal measures of gin, Campari and vermouth, whereas a Manhattan requires two measures of whiskey to one of vermouth), so that actual quantity of your measures is often not so important as the ratio between the large and the small being accurate.  And you’ll also soon spot that these proportions (1:1:1 for the Negroni, 2:1/5:2 for the Manhattan) give you the standard 3oz cocktail, so suggesting a typical size for the standard measure – 1 ounce (or around 30ml in our European measures). But where does that leave jiggers and ponies? Confusingly, you’ll see a typical Japanese double-ended measure (the nice conical type that look elegant when poured held between the first and second fingers) are called ‘jiggers’. But the ‘jigger’ measure in American terms is an exact 1 1/2 ounces, and the equivalent ‘pony’ is 1 ounce. But ask for a ‘shot’, and you will get anything from a 1oz pony or 1 1/4 oz or even a 1 1/2 oz generous shot glass. In the UK, we switched to exact millilitre measures in 1985, defining a ‘single’ measure as 25ml or 35ml, and a double measure to be 50ml  or 70ml, at the owner’s preference – the confusing difference being that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, bar measures tend to be on the more generous size, so the larger measure can be used (at one time, asking for a whisky in Scotland would get you a single by default, but adding the prefix ‘a glass of…’ in front of the brand would automatically get you a double).

My collection of home measures, shown above, ranges from government-stamped standard measure of 50ml and 25ml, which I use for most of my home mixing. to the conical Japanese-style jiggers. All of these vary slightly: the brushed-finish ‘typical’ Japanese one in the centre of the image measures the larger size at 40ml (just under the correct 1 1/2 oz), the black version (from a Spanish cocktail set) measures its jigger at 50ml, and the oddly marked middle one, which came with an unbranded shaker set, measure its jigger at around 42ml – or exactly 1 1/2oz. Their smaller ends are then equally confusing: the stamped one has a smaller measure of about 3/4oz – half the jigger end, but not a pony; my regular Japanese measure has a smaller capacity of exactly the same amount (3/4oz), but this is more than half the larger measure & the black measure again has a smaller end that is over half the larger capacity: three measures, with no real consistency of proportion or absolute measure between them.

And then finally I have the odd multi-tool device that Liz gave me one Christmas as a  sort of barman’s Swiss Army knife: the measures there are 35 & 20ml respectively; a Manhattan made with those proportions would be pretty small & pretty sweet indeed.

So why does this matter? Because proportions in cocktails matter a good deal -Manhattans and Martinis made with too much vermouth can be pretty duff (unless you wanted a gin-and-French, of course), so you need your measures to be accurate & consistent. My advice is not to rely on the typical ‘gift set’ measures too much – either buy some decent measures from a catering or bar supply company (my marked measures came from Nisbets in London, and were a couple of pounds each) – or use a kitchen fluid measure cup (I have one from Oxo that measures ozs, ml, tablespoons and teaspoons in one small jug), which is really good for the ultra-precise recipes (usually the ones that include strong flavourings like absinthe) or use a chemistry measuring flask, marked in ml, which if nothing else, will impress your friends by your mixological exactitude.



20140719-113708-41828994.jpgI love books on drinks, not only because most of them are very readable, but because many are now fantastically well illustrated. Like recipe books, of which I have a fair few as well, drink books understand that the design & presentation is equal to the importance of the words, and so most now are visually impressive, cleverly laid out and beautifully printed.

My library now includes the following books, all of which I recommend. If you would like further details, click on the link text, which will take you to my Amazon associates page for each book.

American Bar, by Charles Schuman

The Savoy Cocktail Book, by Harry Craddock

Bitters, by Brad Thomas Parsons

The Curious Bartender, by Tristran Stephenson

The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Whiskies, by Tristran Stephenson

Apothecary Cocktails, by Warren Bobrow

Speakeasy, by Jason Kosmas & Dushan Zaric

Shrubs, by Michael Dietsch

Experimental Cocktail Club, by Bon, Cros, de Goriainoff & Padovani

Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari, by Mark Bitterman

The Spirits, by Richard Godwin

The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart

The Cocktail Keys, by Rob Cassels

Cosmopolitan, by Toby Cecchini

Cocktails, by Robert Vermeire

The Malt Whisky Companion, by Michael Jackson

69 Colebrooke Row, by Tony Conigliaro

Any of these would make a fine start to a cocktail collection, but if I had to choose just one, then Schuman’s American Bar would win the spot; it is a brilliant guide to how we drink, why we drink & what we drink. It was the first book on drinks I ever owned, and I refer, and defer, to it still.

Travelling bar kit

Travelling bar built from a basic camera case
Travelling bar built from a basic camera case

Evenings with friends now include mixed drinks before eating, and I like to try new recipes and methods with them, as well as classic recipes. As I find I am transporting more equipment each time, I needed a dedicated method of making sure I had everything with me in an easily portable format.

Bartender bags & cases are not a new invention, and top mixologist Jim Meehan has designed perhaps the ultimate utility bag, supplied by top-end leatherworkers, Moore & Giles. However, at around $1,000, this beautiful object is a little too expensive for my current needs.

My solution was a £25 camera case from the UK electronics supplier, Maplin. The case is designed for carrying delicate photo or electronic equipment, and has a foam insert that is pre-cut in a grid format to allow one to arrange the storage to suit.

Twenty minutes work with scissors, and I now have a case that carries the following basics for an evening of mixed drinks:

Boston shaker


Bar tools (spoon, hawthorn strainer, zester & knife)


Small chopping board

Cocktail sticks

Cherries (in a base of maraschino & Angostura bitters)

Large bottle of vermouth or other flavouring ingredient (here it is Aperol, for a Death in Florence cocktail)

Bitters – four bottles: my house mixture, clove, grapefruit & Bob’s astounding Abbott’s bitters

Waiter’s friend-type corkscrew

However, I still have my eye on the Meehan bag…


Spirits are the basics of any cocktail bar, and the question is how many do you need? The answer depends on one’s tastes, and the drinks needed to be made.

A quick inventory of my cupboard shows the following stock:

Smirnoff, Blue label
Gordon’s dry
Bombay Sapphire, 90 proof
Bulleit, 90 proof
Noilly Prat
Kina Lillet
Martini Rosso
Velho Barreira
White Rum
Dark rum
The Glenrothes, select reserve
Tullibardine, 10 year old
Balvenie Double Wood, 12 year old
Tallisker, 10 year old
Canadian Club, 6 year old                                                                                     Tequila                                                                                                                                           El Jimador

Plus various liqueurs (Kahlua, Triple Sec, Cointreau) and various others (home made lemon and cranberry vodkas, spiced rum and so on).


Three basic Cobbler shakers from the author’s stock

Visit a decent shop, and the amount of bar equipment is vast. But there are only a few things you really need, aside from alcohol:

Shaker. It is possible mix a cocktail in a jar or a jug, but since presentation is part of the pleasure, everyone should own at least one decent shaker. You’ll find plenty of opinion divided on the Cobbler versus the Boston shaker. The difference? The Cobbler is the classic three-part shaker with the body, strainer and cap. Bar aficionados dislike the built-in strainer as it clogs with ice too easily, but a classic stainless steel Cobbler looks good in your cocktail kit. The Boston is the glass and steel two-part combination that professional bar people seem to prefer, especially in the US – probably because the customer can see the drink being mixed as they shake, and the parts (glass jar and metal cup) are more interchangeable; you can also use the glass part for stirred drinks, without it chilling in the hands as much as the base of the Cobbler.

Occasionally, one also comes across a third type – the French or Parisian shaker – which is pretty much just a Cobbler without the strainer top. It is apparently gaining popularity in the US.

Stirring glass. If, unlike Bond, you prefer not to shake your cocktails, then the best place to make one is a large stirring glass, typically with a 500-700ml capacity. A decent stirring glass usually has a spout, to allow for tidy pouring after mixing, for which you’ll need a long-handled bar spoon (see below). The stirring glass is the best option for some of the classic drinks, such as the Old Fashioned & the Manhattan.

Measure. Accurate measure are important if you want to mix drinks consistently. A good barperson can pour by counting, using a pouring top, but for the rest of us, a drink measure is invaluable. The simplest is the double-ended type: the larger cup holds around 50ml (a jigger) and the smaller, 25ml (a pony). The problem with these is that as you flip them over to use the ends, you get drips of the previous measure everywhere – better to buy a pair of small measures, if you can. The most elegant double measures are the Japanese style – the two cups are elegantly slanted, and meet together at their narrow base. They often have rolled rim that prevents drips.

Bar Spoon. Simply, a long spoon for stirring drinks, typically in the Stirring glass (see above). Real bar spoons have a spiral handle that allows you to rotate them between the fingers, as a stirred drink should be treated gently. Any long-handled spoon will do, but I would avoid the cheaper spoons that have a spike under a rubber cap. I assume these are to get olives or cherries out of jars, but the cap seems to disappear all too readily. Otherwise they come with a flat plate on the end, presumably to be used as a muddler; really, they are too lightweight to be used for this. There’s a special knack to using the spoon smoothly – trying sitting the handle between your first & second, third finger and then fourth finger alternately, so the spoon stands vertically, bowl downwards, and then stir with an elegant rotation of the wrist. This is a lot easier to do, than describe – look at images of bar staff online & you’ll soon spot it.

Strainer. To use a Boston or French shaker, a strainer is essential. The Hawthorn type is the bar standard – a pierced plate with a number of prongs that allows is to be rested flat on the rim of the shaker, and held down with the fingers while pouring. A spiral spring around the edge of the plate filters out the coarser lumps of ice or fruit, but allows some small pieces through. If you see a drink recipe that requires double-straining, then correctly you’ll need a small mesh strainer to use at the same time – the hawthorn catches the big lumps of ice, while the small strainer, held in the other hand below separates out the final tiny shards and leaves the drink pristine. It’s a bit fussy, but worth it for a really neat Martini or Manhattan presentation.

Muddler. To get the flavours out of some ingredients, like citrus zest in the Old Fashioned, they need to be crushed to release their oils and juices in the glass. A heavy spoon would do this, but the best tool is a muddler, which is simply a short length of a thick wooden dowel, somewhat like a miniature baseball bat. Available in various lengths, one around the 8″ (or 200mm) mark seems to be the most useful. Modern metal versions are available with a rubber end, which might suit your bar’s aesthetic better. If using the wooden ones, try to avoid the varnished type – in my experience, this just chips off after a while, presumably ending up in your drink.

Paring knife. Garnishes are a big part of a drink’s presentation, and cocktails like the Old-fashioned really benefit from a large slice of orange peel being spritzed over their surface. To prepare slices like this, you need a good, sharp knife – either with a straight or curved blade. The brand I prefer most for this is Opinel: the blades are just the right length, and sharpen beautifully.

Ice bucket. A double-walled bucket is pretty handy for keeping ice fresh and frozen while you are mixing; otherwise, you’ll be making frequent trips to the freezer to replenish a regular bowl, as ice seems to disappear very quickly once it is sitting in its own meltwater.

Ice. I found a second-hand ice machine on eBay a few years back, which has proved valuable for stocking ice buckets for chilling wine etc., but I don’t use it for cocktail ice. For this, I buy the ready-bagged big ice cubes from the supermarket: it’s cheap, and far, far better quality in terms of clarity and size than I can make easily at home. Five bags easily get me through a cocktail party, and costs me only a few pounds. Don’t ruin a cocktail by using a few cubes from the plastic ice tray in the back of the freezer; use fresh ice and use lots of it.