How we tested
A muddler is an important tool for any home bar; it's primarily used to crush fruit and herbs so they express their essential oils and/or juices for use in cocktails. We wanted to know which muddler was best for home bartenders, so we ordered seven widely available options, priced from about $5 to about $18, and used them to muddle lime wedges, mint, and sugar cubes in a variety of vessels and to make mojitos.
All the muddlers were capable of making decent drinks, but a few factors made certain models more durable, easier to use, and better performers overall.
The first factor? Length. Most of the time, we muddle directly in a cocktail shaker so that we can add and mix the rest of the drink ingredients afterward. Because the mixing cups of most cocktail shakers, including our winner, are 6 or 7 inches tall, we preferred muddlers that were at least 9.5 inches long. The longer the model, the taller it stood in the shaker, giving us more to hold on to when we pounded limes and mint. Shorter models worked well enough when we muddled sugar cubes in a squat old-fashioned glass but left only a stubby inch or so to grab when we used them with the shakers.
For similar reasons, we also liked muddlers that had discrete handles, or at least a bit of a taper or indentation between the muddling end and the end meant to be held. With no indentations, cylindrical models were a bit harder to grasp for longer periods since they didn't provide a natural resting place for our hands. We also preferred models made from materials that were easier to grip, such as unvarnished wood or bamboo, or that had rubbery plastic overlays on their handles; smooth plastic models were a little too slick to hold on to, especially when they got splashed with drink ingredients.
We found that we liked muddlers with heads that were at least 1.5 inches in diameter. Models with smaller heads couldn't cover as much territory as quickly, taking slightly more time to get all the juice out of the limes. And we preferred models with a little weight to them; 5 to 6 ounces was ideal, allowing gravity to do some of the work for us without becoming tiresome to use. Lighter models required us to use a bit more force; the one heavier model, weighing nearly a pound, fatigued our arms and felt cumbersome and a little dangerous when used in the old-fashioned glass.
Textured Heads Make Slightly More Fragrant Drinks
The style of the head itself made a small difference in the flavor of a finished drink. Some professional bartenders claim that muddlers with textured heads—heads covered with a nubbly grid or bumps—make bitter or muddy-tasting drinks because they dig too deeply into citrus pith and tear up herbs, promoting undesirable chemical reactions. We did not find this to be the case: While the textured muddlers shredded the herbs and abraded the citrus peel more than smooth muddlers did, the drinks made with these more aggressively muddled ingredients were still perfectly acceptable. Some tasters even preferred drinks made by textured muddlers, since their grinding action may have helped extract more oils and flavor compounds from the ingredients, resulting in somewhat more fragrant, complex drinks than those made by the smooth muddlers. Still, you can't go wrong with either style of head; both types made good drinks.
Don't Get a Lacquered Muddler
Finally, we considered the durability of the muddlers. We left all the models in a mixture of gin, water, and lime juice overnight, as if we'd forgotten them after mixing a cocktail; we then washed the models by hand or in the dishwasher 10 times, according to manufacturers' instructions. After the overnight cocktail bath, we found that the lacquer coating on two of the wooden models had eroded slightly, seemingly dissolving into the liquid. While at least one of the manufacturers claims that this lacquer is food-safe, we'd prefer to limit our drink ingredients to the ones in our recipes. Muddlers made from metal, plastic, or unvarnished wood avoided this problem. Unvarnished wood can warp or crack if it's not dried properly, and one wood model stained lightly after its cocktail bath, but overall, we prefer this material to plastic for its grippier texture.
The Best Muddler: Fletcher's Mill Maple Muddler
Our winning muddler is Fletcher's Mill Maple Muddler. At 11 inches long, it was the biggest muddler we tested, standing tall in every vessel. It had a moderate weight, and its slightly indented, unvarnished wood body was especially easy to grip. Testers particularly liked that it was double-ended, with one large smooth head and one slightly smaller one, allowing them to make different drinks with either end or to muddle in both small and large vessels.
We tested seven muddlers, priced from about $5 to about $18, using them to muddle lime wedges, mint, and sugar cubes and to make mojitos. We also left the muddlers in a mixture of gin, water, and lime juice overnight and then washed them 10 times by hand or in the dishwasher (according to manufacturers' instructions). We evaluated the models on their performance, ease of use, and durability. All models were bought online and appear in order of preference.
Performance: We rated how well and how quickly the models muddled different ingredients.
Ease of Use: We evaluated how comfortable the models were to grip, muddle, and maneuver.
Durability: We evaluated how well the muddlers stood up to staining and moisture.