We test drive Shaker & Spoon, the ‘Blue Apron of cocktail kits’

The makings for the Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow was included in the Shaker & Spoon April Rum Wild kit.
The makings for the Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow was included in the Shaker & Spoon April Rum Wild kit. Shaker & Spoon

Shaker & Spoon, a relatively new DIY cocktail kit, bills itself as the “Blue Apron of the cocktail world,” a reference to the mail-order kits where you make the meal at home with already portioned ingredients.

It’s always helpful for start-ups to compare themselves to existing concepts to educate consumers on their premise, but I was dubious, having met mixed results with Blue Apron.

And while I enjoy cocktails, I’d rather order them at a bar when my libation’s destiny rests in the capable hands of a pro. If I do attempt to make cocktails at home, I tend towards simple two- or three-ingredient, equal parts cocktails than can be easily mixed in a glass. That’s partly because my cocktail shaker got lost in transit two moves ago, and partly because, at the end of the day, it’s just easier to pour myself a glass of wine.

I test drove two different months’ kits — Austin Without Limits (October 2017) and Rum Wild (April 2018) — to see whether they’re worth adding to your bar tab.

The basics

For a monthly subscription of $50, Shaker & Spoon promises to deliver the ingredients — minus the alcohol — and recipes. They’ll make up to four servings of three different cocktails, built around a theme each month.

When kits are ready to ship, Shaker & Spoon emails subscribers a notification of the theme with a link to the website to learn more about the inspiration behind it, peruse the recipes included, ogle gorgeous photos of the drinks, and the kind of booze you’ll need to buy. More on that in a minute.

When your kit ships, you’ll receive a cardboard box that’s packed with three ingredient cards, a glossary of terms and techniques, and ingredients nestled in a bed of crinkle cut shredded paper. You’ll find fresh lemons or limes, tiny vials of bitters, mini bottles of artisanal syrups and sodas, spices, and garnishes.

With Blue Apron and other meal kits, most people have basic cooking equipment on hand: a pan, a spatula, a mixing spoon, a decent knife. Before you dabble in cocktails, make sure you have the appropriate basics — a shaker and a measuring device at a minimum.

Since cocktail recipes rely on more precise measurements than “a pinch of this or that,” the measuring device is especially important, and not all jiggers are created equal or have all the various ounce fractions you’ll need. A pro bartender friend recommends the OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Cup, which is precise (and so cute!), and I found that OXO also makes a solid, inexpensive shaker.

What comes with the kit

Shaker & Spoon ships you just the right amount of ingredients you’ll need, so you don’t have to buy a whole bottle of chili blood orange soda or orgeat pecan cinnamon syrup that are likely to languish in your fridge after one use.

One of my favorite ingredients was the ginger grenadine syrup for Hurrache Nights, a shaken bourbon and lime juice number, which proved that the addition of a top-notch, ready-made ingredient can step up your bar game in a hurry. And if there’s a kit you really like from previous months, you can opt to re-order (minus fresh produce).

But because Shaker & Spoon ships nationally and liquor laws vary from state to state, the kit doesn’t come with booze. This is understandable, but the extra trip to the ABC store can be inconvenient.

Shaker & Spoon earns props for suggesting spirits at different price points and sometimes gives you the option of using different kinds of liquor. For example, October’s Austin Without Limits box offered a choice between aged tequila or bourbon, noting that both provided the requisite oaky sweetness for the box’s recipes.

Additionally, some cocktails require other hard-to-ship ingredients like egg whites or butter; one could argue that these are things folks already have on hand, but then again, maybe not.

The recipes tell a story

Overall, the recipes are thoughtfully written by nationally acclaimed bartenders and cocktail experts. Each recipe’s introduction provides a description of the drink, but also a glimpse into the mind of a bartender. It’s an insightful look at how they develop a drink that tells a story, sounds enticing and produces a glassful of balanced, nuanced and flavorful sips.

The recipes especially shine when they include notes for tailoring it to your taste, letting you know when you can get away with adding more or less pineapple juice, for example, or if the cocktail lends itself to being served warm, as one of the boozy whiskey-based drinks did.

Read the recipes first

The recipes are clear and easy to follow, but as with most recipes, you should always read them at least once before making it. If I had followed my own advice, I would’ve realized that the cream of coconut you need for the rum-based Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow needs 15 minutes to warm up at room temperature, and that trying to run it under warm water and madly whisking it back into liquid form will prompt your spouse to enter the kitchen and doubt your sanity.

Or you might see that a recipe requires you to fat-wash the booze, which involves waiting at least 30 minutes for it to chill in the freezer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a drink to sip on while you wait?

Each kit also contains a card with a glossary of terms for barware, glassware, techniques and terminology, so make sure you have the proper understanding of techniques and the requisite tools. Don’t have a hand torch or a gas burner to smolder the cinnamon stick garnish? I’ll volunteer that lighting it with a match isn’t a good alternative.

Shaker & Spoon would better serve subscribers by printing recipe-specific techniques on the recipe card itself, instead of on the separate glossary card. I have no problem going the extra mile for a recipe, say, folding in eggs one at a time, if I know it’ll yield an extra fluffy cake crumb.

When it came time for fat-washing bourbon for the Ma Sour, it wasn’t hard, but I forgot that the glossary card spelled out the technique’s definitions on the back: “Infusing a spirit with the flavor of a certain fat by melting the fat, adding it to the spirit, then freezing the mixture so that the hardened layer of fat can be easily skimmed or strained away, leaving only the flavor and none of the greasiness behind.”

That still didn’t tell me what fat-washing the spirit would specifically do for that cocktail. That information was online, and I discovered that using salted butter was probably crucial to the recipe (I only had unsalted on hand): “After the browned butter is strained out, it’ll leave only the flavor behind, adding a salinity to the cocktail that’ll make the sweetness of the pecan orgeat pop and mild out the acidity of the lemon.”

Your drinks will not be Instagrammable

Okay, fine, yours might be. But I must confess that my drinks looked nothing like the online photos. I suspect that this happens to a lot of Blue Apron users too. By the time you finish making dinner, you likely don’t have the time, lighting, patience, or prop styling savvy to produce Instagram-worthy results.

My dearth of glassware, coupled with the fact that I was often trying to make a drink while cooking dinner, meant that by the time I had squeezed citrus and hand-cut zest, measured the ingredients, shaken it, double strained it, and was ready to pour it, I just wanted to get it in a glass (one that was admittedly too big and that I forgot to chill ahead of time) and take a sip.

One of the drinks in my rum-themed kit came with adorable drink umbrellas, so I did manage to salvage a shot of the Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow for Instagram stories.

But they’ll be delicious

My favorite of the bunch was the Hemingway en Nica, a riff on a classic rum daiquiri (not the frozen blended concoctions many Americans associate with daiquiris) that mingled aged rum, naranja agria-grapefruit syrup and lime juice to refreshing effect. The spiced, ‘elemakule tiki bitters were a nice touch, too, and an ingredient I hadn’t previously encountered.

Another favorite was the Hurrache Nights, a shaken and strained bourbon number starring the aforementioned ginger grenadine syrup. Besides being easy to make (shake and strain), it had a balanced flavor profile. Bourbon and ginger make good bedfellows, but what I really appreciated was that the bartender took into consideration how the cocktail would drink and taste over time; a splash of soda water helped both accentuate the bourbon’s spicy notes and cut the initial blast of sweetness, while the fresh lime juice helped mellow it out as I sipped.

But perhaps the best endorsement came from my beer-drinking, bourbon-averse husband, who often likens bourbon to lighter fluid. Of The Beat Goes On, a bourbon tipple crafted with the recommended 100 proof Wild Turkey, spiced mojo syrup and fresh lemon juice, he said he could seem himself sipping it outside on the patio with a cigar. I invited him to make his own.

The Last Word

Other than a few recipe haggles, Shaker & Spoon is a fun subscription for anyone interested in learning to make cocktails at home or broaden their knowledge of spirits; it would also make a fine gift for the cocktail nerd in your life.

Just as preparing dishes outside of your normal recipe repertoire can enhance your cooking knowledge and make you a more discerning diner, Shaker & Spoon’s cocktail kits and recipes are a great way to discover new ingredients, experiment with new techniques, and broaden your understanding of spirits and drinks.

Ultimately, this makes you a more appreciative cocktail drinker, whether or not you decide to mix your own.