The Basics Bar Tools

Home Bar Basics: Everything You Need to Know About Garnishing Tools

Which tools are good to have on hand, and which are just a waste of space?

A cocktail mixing glass, two strainers, a shaker, peeler, two stoppered glass bottles, a metal jigger, two long-handled bar spoons, and a muddle rest on an elegant wooden bar tray with brass handles. A text overlay reads Home Bar Basics, Garnishing Tools. / Tim Nusog

You’ve finally carved away precious square footage to make room for that most sacred of household additions: the home bar. But turning out top-notch drinks while in your slippers takes more than good intentions. There are bottles to buy, tools to agonize over and techniques to master. Follow us as we help you navigate your home bar basics.

Anyone who has ever strolled the aisles of a fancy culinary specialty store knows a gadget exists for every kitchen task no matter how trivial. (Onion holder? Strawberry huller? Really?) And while some are indispensable for certain jobs, others, especially those that are single-purpose or redundant, merely clog up drawers and storage space.

A fruit peeler, citrus planer, large tweezers, and a small citrus grater rest on a wooden tray between an array of citrus fruits.
Y peeler, citrus planer, tweezers and grater, from left. / Tim Nusog

It’s the same behind the bar. Aside from tools to shake and stir drinks, you’ll want to stock a few (read: a few) to help you garnish them. We’ll tell you exactly what you need (and what you don’t) to adorn your cocktails with aromatic citrus swaths, sprigs of microherbs and spice shavings.

The Backstory

From the expressed oil of an orange peel in a Manhattan to a sprinkle of grated nutmeg on a creamy mug of Eggnog, many cocktails would lack that je ne sais quoi if they weren’t flaunting some kind of garnish. Since the 18th century, when barkeeps were topping Sherry Cobblers with overflowing fresh fruit, herbs and an ample dusting of powdered sugar, adornments atop libations have added flair, aesthetics, aroma and flavor. But to really make your garnish game strong, you need the right tools.

Using a wide peeler, a pair of hands with painted nails removed a large swath of peel from an orange / Tim Nusog

What Experts Say

For à la minute peeling, Aaron Polsky, the founder of Live Wire Drinks, eschews a channel knife for a Kuhn Rikon Y peeler, which he says is very sharp and cheap. “Apply pressure to get a wide swath that you can squeeze, making sure to maintain control so that that the peeler doesn’t slip and cut you,” says Polsky. “And keep the bottom edge of the blade scraped [clean] of citrus buildup.”

Try this: Kuhn Rikon Y peeler

Will Lee, beverage director at Grey Ghost in Detroit, prefers Titan peelers as “they have a pivoting serrated blade, which gives you a bit more control when using it.” Any peeler should be sharp enough to render precise, thin cuts from only the aromatic peel layer rather than the bitter white pith.

Try this: Titan peeler

A hand with red painted nails uses large tweezers to gingerly place a sprig of thyme upon a tall glass of clear liquid and ice with juniper berries floating in it. Next to it, on a wooden tray, is an open bottle, a bowl of lemons and limes, and some other bar gear. / Tim Nusog

Twelve-inch-long BarConic tongs from “are a good weight and size, just tight enough but not too tight,” says Lee. Scott Jenkins, a bartender in Dallas, likes to grab garnishes with any brand of 10-inch-long surgical steel tweezers, which “keep your hands from getting sticky and help you with precise, clean placement.”

Try this: BarConic tongs

Try this: Surgical steel tweezers

Microplane is a highly respected brand of grater—so sharp and well-crafted that they rarely need replacing. Jenkins uses one for nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom pods and the like. Not matter what brand you go with, “it should make very fine, almost powderlike gratings more for aromatic qualities so as not to interfere with the texture of the drink,” he says.

Try this: Microplane grater

A woman wearing a navy apron is mostly out of the shot, except for her torso, arms, and hands, whose fingers are painted bright red. She grates a chunk of nutmeg over a frothy, light brown cocktail in a coupe glass. / Tim Nusog

The Takeaway

“Tools should be kept in an accessible spot [and] cleaned well after each use,” says Jenkins. “Let the tool do the work,” says Lee. “If you have to force it to do the job, it’s probably not the right tool and there’s a good chance you could hurt yourself.” If you do keep a knife behind the bar, “keep it sharp (ideally with a stone) and use the point for fine garnish work and the heel of the blade to carve ice,” says Polsky.

A woman’s hands peel long, thin strips of zest from a lemon, piling them on top of an ice cube floating in a vividly red drink.
Citrus planer. / Tim Nusog

You can probably pass over a zester or line peeler, says Jenkins, which make clumsy-looking citrus spirals that can add unpleasant texture. Ditto for the trident spoon, which sports a little fork on one end that’s a stabbing hazard for pretty much every bartender who has ever reached for one, says Lee.

On the flip side, you might discover an interesting, unintended use for a garnishing tool. He has seen a citrus press used to create a mini ice bowl out of crushed ice set on top of a cocktail and filled with a garnish or liqueur. “It’s pretty cool-looking.”