Cocktail expert Kim Haasarud says that if she were stranded on the proverbial desert island with only one bartending tool, it wouldn’t be her shaker or her strainer or her blender. It would be her old-fashioned muddler.
For those of you rushing to Google the word “muddler,” it is a small, bulbous instrument that bartenders and mixologists use to crush ingredients, much the same as a chef would use a hammer-like tenderizer to pound meat into shape. Of course, as Haasarud is quick to point out, not every ingredient need to be pulverized. Most times, it only needs to be lovingly bruised.
If you love Mojitos and make your own from scratch, then you are probably familiar with a muddler (or else you’ve muddled through using a wooden spoon handle). But you would probably make your Mojitos better and with more variety if you bought a copy of Haasarud’s latest bar book, "101 Mojitos and Other Muddled Drinks" (Wiley, $16.95).
The perfect or classic Mojito has rum, soda water, mint leaves, lime juice, and simple syrup, and Haasarud begins by explaining that, if you want your drink done right, each ingredient matters — down to the ice you use. Basic Mojito muddling involves the mint leaves, and you muddle them tenderly, just enough to release the flavor oils.
Lovers of classic cocktails not especially devoted to the Mojito are probably more familiar with watching their favorite barkeep fix an Old Fashioned, mushing together an orange slice with the sugar cube, bitters, and a cherry. The reason she just doesn’t use orange juice, Haasarud explains, is that the orange rind adds its own oils and flavors to the mix.
“When you’re fixing cocktails, so many ingredients — from fruits to herbs to other vegetables — taste better muddled,” Haasarud explains. Assuming she had her rum along with her muddler on that dessert island, she would undoubtedly work her way through the tropical vegetation and invent a few dozen fresh and savory drinks.
Which brings us to an “ah-hah” moment in Haasarud’s career, which has ranged from tending bar to acting as a consultant for such high-flyers as Skyy and Möet. “When I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2000, I expected the level of cocktails with all those fresh ingredients to be better,” she says, “but the level wasn’t that great.”
Cruising through that huge Santa Monica Farmer’s Market she found her approach to ingredients — “not just cocktails, but also non-alcoholic drinks” — was more like that of the famous chef, Alice Waters. Use what is fresh. Use what is local. “I was looking for ingredients, but I was also looking for inspiration,” she says. And both have found their way into her drinks.
So don’t be surprised if you find muddled cucumber slices, muddled fresh sage leaves, or even muddled avocado in Haasarud’s recipes. You might walk away after drinking a couple of them feeling happily muddled, but, hopefully, never smashed.