For every cocktail fan who loves the Mojito’s irresistible combo of rum, mint and lime, there’s a bartender who loathes making them. The reason? All. That. Muddling.
But while some bar pros have abandoned the technique in favor of time-saving syrups, infusions and prepped-in-advance juices, others are quick to point out there is just no substitute for the fresh aromas and flavors gleaned from herbs, citrus oils and less-expected ingredients like hot peppers and baking spices. These sips squash the competition.
Can’t make it to any of the bars serving these great muddled drinks? Try mixing the Road to Kyushu from this list at home.
General manager Lee Farrell has an, um, passion for fresh and innovative cocktails with unique flavor profiles. This one muddles fresh blueberries with Frida Kahlo blanco tequila, then shakes them with lemon, passion fruit syrup and coconut rum. It's served up in a chilled coupe and garnished with three skewered blueberries on a pick. "Muddling adds so much to the texture of the cocktail and gives the drink actual pulp rather than just a syrup-like taste," says Farrell. "It gives depth and coats the palate, allowing people to taste the fruit and spirits in a different way."
“The flavor of muddling fresh fruits and vegetables directly into a tin cannot be matched,” says cocktail expert Mirek Struniaski, who bemoans the way both can mellow or be eliminated when you use juices or syrups prepped ahead of time. “This is why jams taste nothing like fresh fruit and why freshly squeezed orange juice will taste completely different with every hour that passes.” Struniaski’s libation, inspired by the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, shakes muddled Earl Grey–tea-infused honey, lemon juice and blackberries with gin. The concoction is then double-strained, topped with expressed mint leaves and club soda and garnished with a lemon wheel.
Co-owner and mixologist Johnny Swet wanted to capture the comforting flavors of a Northeastern winter—with a twist. He muddles shiso (a purple basil prized for its hue and spicy peppery flavor that wakes up the drink) with maple syrup, cinnamon-infused syrup, orange bitters and Hudson Baby bourbon. It’s shaken with ice, strained into a rocks glass over an ice cube touting a frozen suspended cinnamon stick and garnished with a basil leaf. “After muddling, be sure to move the final product up the sides of the tin prior to shaking in order to expose the spirit to as much of the essential oils as possible,” he says.
Not only does this drink employ a traditional muddler, it’s brought to the table in a French press, whose plunger is dispensed thrice to coax out even more fresh flavor. Director of food and drink Sean Potter’s libation, inspired by the American Southwest, muddles blueberries and basil in the bottom of the press. He adds Lunazul reposado tequila, lime juice, agave, grapefruit bitters, habañero shrub and water, presses the drink and serves it on the rocks, garnished with a few plump blueberries and a basil leaf. “The cool thing is you can really play mad scientist because you have full control over the flavor,” says Potter.
Lead bartender Jon Howard’s sip rotates frequently depending on the availability of produce. A recent iteration muddled blood orange wheels with a bay leaf, which were shaken with sugar and Stranahan’s Colorado whiskey, fine-strained over a large rock and garnished with a blood orange slice and a bay leaf. “Muddling gives you the opportunity to present a flavor at its purest form,” he says. “Adding both depth and complexity while simultaneously being true to the earth it was made from.”
When bar consultant Russ Neipp wanted to add an approachable Japanese whisky cocktail to the menu, he turned to light, floral, easy-drinking Kikori whisky. To keep with the Asian theme, he muddles a shishito pepper to extract its sweet and spicy juice, shakes it with the whisky, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white for velvety texture and serves it up, garnished with a shishito and a line of Angostura bitters. The result, he says, is “a well-balanced sour cocktail perfect for any Japanese whisky enthusiast.”
This refreshing low-proof libation also touts a touch of a kick. Bar manager Jesse Ostroski lightly muddles mint for heady aroma, then adds Averna amaro, Rittenhouse rye, agave, lime juice and Angostura bitters, shakes it with ice, double-strains it into a Collins glass over fresh ice and tops it with soda water and a mint sprig. “I think muddling still has its place for certain cocktails but with the popularity of making your own syrups, tinctures and infusions, it’s not used as much,” Ostroski admits, who uses it primarily for soft herbs or to extract citrus oils.
Named for Boston’s public transportation system, this cocktail at New England–style seafood restaurant All Set muddles a grapefruit slice (with pith intact to impart floral and bitter notes) with lime juice and orange bitters. Tequila, Aperol liqueur and agave are added, and the drink is shaken hard with ice, poured into a double Old Fashioned glass and garnished with a grapefruit slice. “The only reason muddling could be seen as falling by the wayside is because of drinks like the Mojito done by bars that don’t love them,” says owner Jennifer Meltzer. “They muddle because that’s what people in the ’90s thought they had to see to know a ‘cool’ drink.”
This mezcal tipple conjures up both thoughts of spring and bouquets gifted on Valentine’s Day. Lead bartender Aren Bellando adds mezcal, lemon juice, Crème Yvette liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, Chase elderflower liqueur, thinly sliced strawberries, egg white and Chinese bitters to a shaker and muddles them softly. The mixture is dry-shaken to add texture and frothiness, shaken again with ice, strained into a coupe and garnished with a strawberry. “The muddling technique allows the strawberries’ fresh juices to accentuate the fruit forwardness of the cocktail,” says Bellando. “I can take my time to make this an interactive and personal drink for every guest. “
When bar manager Meredith Hayman had a bunch of Galliano liqueur to use up, she created this market-driven take on the Manhattan. She starts by muddling cloves and kumquats (which have a thinner rind and smaller amount of pith than other citrus) from the Santa Monica farmers’ market, before adding the Italian liqueur, barrel-aged bitters and Kikori Japanese whisky. It’s stirred, strained and served in a coupe and garnished with the diminutive citrus fruit. “Muddling is an effective and unique way of building complexity in your drink since you’re extracting both the essential oils and the fragrance,” she says.
This seasonal variant on the Margarita from head bartender Mike Jones subs in muddled apples and celery for an extra boost of vegetal and fruity notes. He adds Partida reposado tequila, agave, lemon juice and Scrappy’s celery bitters. The drink is shaken, strained into a coupe glass and garnished with a few thin slices of apple. “Remember to gently muddle and not pulverize in order to adequately release the flavors of the celery and apples, which will also help bind the alcohol better,” he says.