One of the first purpose-built bar tools ever created, the muddler—a wooden dowel resembling a miniature baseball bat, rounded on one end and flat on the other—has survived largely unchanged for more than two centuries.
Before the arrival of elegant silver cocktail shakers, scalloped julep strainers and spiraled barspoons—and before the arrival of Jerry Thomas himself—the practice of bartending was a far more archaic undertaking. Then, the barman’s tool kit consisted largely of items borrowed from the kitchen (knives, nutmeg graters and strainers), with few tools that existed for the express purpose of drink-making.
Of course, there were exceptions. In Imbibe, for example, David Wondrich describes the historic prevalence of the Eggnog stirrer—a hand-operated eggbeater of sorts—as well as that of the loggerhead, also known as a flip-dog. (The latter, essentially an iron rod that’d been warmed in the fireplace ashes, was plunged directly into drinks to heat them, often contributing a characteristic burnt, bitter taste that was popular in the colonial era.)
Chief among this class of tools, however—and the only of its ilk to survive to this day—was the toddy-stick, an early name for what we now know as the muddler. Ranging in size from five to ten inches, the toddy-stick was something of a Swiss Army knife for the 18th–century backbar. Used alternately to break sugar from the loaf, stir drinks and grind spices like a pestle, it was as ubiquitous early on as the toddy itself.
The commercialization of the ice industry in the 1830s, however, challenged the primacy of the toddy-stick. This new class of ice-cold drinks demanded syrups, as opposed to cubes of broken sugar, and glasses overflowing with ice required more delicate tools for stirring. Thus, the toddy-stick was given not only a new name, but a singular new purpose: to muddle fruits and herbs, a task for which it’s still used today.
Though rudimentary in appearance, the muddler is no mere relic of a bygone era of drink making. Rather, its continued existence stands as testament to the timelessness of good, simple design.