Incidentally, in my youth the bung starter was the barkeeper’s favorite weapon. Most whiskey was sold from barrels, so at least one was to be found behind every bar. Time after time, when the unmistakable sounds of riot came from the saloon next door, I have looked on the scene from the safety of the rear entrance—our store and the saloon shared a back porch—and watched one of the Wolf brothers in magnificent action, conquering the field with a bung starter. By the time the police arrived, only an ambulance was needed.
~ Paul M. Angle
"My Father’s Grocery Store "
By and large, I’m content with my bar gear—copper pans, strainers, funnels, a fancy-ass mandolin, zesters, shakers, two-liter jars for infusions, and an array German, French, and American knives deck the kitchen walls and cabinets. As the collection metastasizes into the living room, there are julep cups, brandy snifters, bottles for homemade bitters, cordials, and ratafias, and several shelves of cocktail books. Honestly, it’s more than anyone truly needs at home.
But I’m missing one tool: a bung starter.
You heard me: a bung starter. Before aluminum beer kegs, barkeeps kept an oversized wooden hammer for removing the wooden bung that plugged the, um, bunghole. Quit your sniggering. With a barrel on its side and facing up, this little maul would be tapped on the outside around the bung to drive it, bit by bit, up out of the round hole so a spigot could be inserted to dispense the precious liquids within. Sometimes bungs eased out peaceably. Other times, they blew off explosively with a spray of beer. Eyes were probably lost, maybe even widows created. Whiskey and vinegar barrels got the same treatment.
I want one.
It’s not that I have any wooden barrels around the place needing their bungs popped. Nah, it’s more mundane than that. Because mint juleps are nearly our house drink, we go through a fair amount of crushed ice. And if it’s not for a julep, crushed ice comes in handy for a variety of other drinks, not least of which is the Painkiller, a rum and fruit juice concoction that likely has caused as much pain as it supposedly relieved.
As it stands, I’ll put whole ice cubes in a canvas bag not unlike a small pillowcase. Fold over the top. Wail on it with a rolling pin. Some folks use the gripping end of a big muddler (I’m looking at you, Thomas Waugh). Others use a household hammer, though I find too much risk of its edges ripping the bag. A rolling pin is—meh—an ok workaround. A fleischklobber for flattening meats could work, but I'm trying to avoid meat/cocktail cross-contamination these days.
Both David Wondrich and New Orleanian Chris McMillian have ice mauls that would make Thor flush with envy. While McMillian may wax lyrical over a mint julep as he reduces his ice to submissive little shards (see below), I’ve seen Wondrich thunderously hammer away, shattering ice into into submission as he worked into a maniacal sweat to keep up with demands of thirsty revelers.
That’s what I need: a broad surface to avoid inadvertently ripping the bag, wood with a touch of malleability to it, and enough weight that the whole thing swings like a dream.
Chris tells me that his source has dried up. Any woodworkers out there up for the task of a custom order?