If you want to get into homemade cocktails, we recommend picking up Oggi’s Marilyn Tall and Slim Cocktail Shaker, OXO’s Mini Angled Measuring Cup and its Steel Cocktail Strainer if you want to buy piece-by-piece for less than $30. Additionally, a hand levered citrus juicer is a great tool to have on hand and the ~$15 Chef’n’s FreshForce Citrus Juicer is our top pick.
Which tools and why?
No matter the ingredients, almost any drink you’re making at home will need to be measured out, either shaken or stirred, and then strained. Other techniques come into play, depending on what you’re mixing up and how advanced you want to get, but these are the basics. Luckily, most of this doesn’t absolutely require specialized equipment. You can invest in a proper bar spoon, for example, but according to the fantastic Speakeasy Cocktails iOS app from renowned bartenders Jim Meehan and Joseph Schwartz—now also available as an iBook—“if you don’t (have one) yet, chopsticks and kebab skewers stir just as smoothly.” The same goes for muddlers, stirring glasses and more.
“I have made do in the past with as little as a mug and a glass for a shaker and a fork for a strainer,” John deBary, bar manager for 2013 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant group, told us. That’ll work in a pinch, but here’s what you should pick up to kickstart your cocktail adventures. These aren’t the most expensive pieces around, and they don’t have to be; they’re great choices for home cocktail enthusiasts. They come recommended by professionals from all over the bar world and are produced by some brands with excellent reputations. OXO, particularly, is one the names that comes up more than any other when researching bar gear. Its products are “affordable, durable and designed well,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann of San Francisco’s Elixir, designated as one of the best bars in America on multiple occasions by GQ, Esquire and more.
How we picked
In addition to our own research, we solicited expert opinions from two of New York City’s best bartenders. We provided Brian Van Flandern and James Menite with all our top contenders, and had them put the tools through their paces.
Van Flandern, who is a master mixologist and the founder of Creative Cocktail Consultants, was the head mixologist at Thomas Keller’s Michelin three star restaurant Per Se. His accolades include recently being named one of the top ten global brand ambassadors by Tales of the Cocktail, winning Gourmand Cookbook’s award for best cocktail cookbook in the world, and being ranked one of the top ten hotel bartenders in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine. He’s the author of Vintage Cocktails, and most recently, Craft Cocktails. To top it all off, Food Network named him America’s top mixologist. This guy knows what he’s talking about.
Menite is a bartender at Crown Restaurant. He’s won awards in competitions sponsored by Martin Miller’s gin and Cherry Heering, and often judges cocktail contests himself. Additionally, he’s been featured in Esquire and Maxim.
The two took their collective expertise and geared it towards the home user, looking for products that first and foremost provide excellent functionality, with form and cost as lesser, but still important, factors.
We had a few key criteria when researching the best shaker. Jon Karel, who was the head bartender of Buffalo, NY’s Vera Pizzeria and was recently voted the best bartender in Buffalo before moving to Rochester’s The Revelry, and Chad Solomon, co-founder of beverage consultancy Cuffs & Buttons (and formerly of award-winning New York/London cocktail bar Milk & Honey) agree that you want a large main canister that can hold about 28 ounces of liquid. This gives the drink room to move around and aerate. Metal is important, because you can tell how fast your cocktail is getting cold. Add to that a good seal—who wants a delicious drink flying everywhere?—overall ease of use, and affordability as important factors.
Although they can be subdivided further, the Boston and cobbler styles are the two main setups you’ll see. Most professionals use Boston shakers, which are comprised of large cup and a small cup that fit together. The former is usually metal (like steel) while the latter can be matching material or a pint glass. Cobbler-style shakers, on the other hand, are what you’re likely used to seeing in people’s homes. Generally, they separate into three pieces: a canister, a lid with a strainer, and a cap to cover up the holes. There’s no real difference between the performance of the two; it mostly comes down to a matter of preference. Rarely, you may see a Parisian shaker, which is a hybrid of the two. There’ll be a base cup and a metal cap, but no strainer built in. The lid fits inside the lip of the bottom tin, rather than outside of it.
How do I use it?
The shaking process is straightforward, but don’t half-ass it. Pour your ingredients into the main canister, add ice, assemble the shaker, then shake. And then shake some more. “The intensity of your shaking…is non-negotiable. Shake it ferociously. Shake the bejeezus out of it,” are the instructions in Speakeasy Cocktails. “Ten seconds should be plenty, but…defer to the quality of your ice.” Not only does shaking make your drink cold, but it mixes your ingredients together. The better the shake, the better the emulsification process.
How we tested
After searching through America’s Test Kitchen’s results, Amazon’s top sellers, Serious Eats, and more, we arrived at nine finalists for testing consideration. We then cross-checked when possible and eliminated those that ATK didn’t like as well as any recommended ones that had mediocre Amazon reviews. To test, first we added four ounces of liquid, then ice, then shook for ten seconds. We were looking for leaking, and just how easy it was to split the pieces apart after
After looking at more than a dozen shakers, and testing nine, we agree with our experts that we’d pick up the Marilyn Tall and Slim Cocktail Shaker from Oggi, which goes for about $14 on Amazon. It’s Van Flandern’s best pick. The 26-ounce cobbler-style shaker is made of steel, with a brushed, matte body, and reflective lid. Its name comes from the Marilyn Monroe-like curvature of the canister. It comes together and splits apart easily, and leaking isn’t an issue. We really like the way it looks and feels.
In testing, Oggi’s shaker performed just how we would want it to. It didn’t leak at all, and even though the metal did expand slightly, it wasn’t very difficult to split the pieces apart to pour the drink. Van Flandern like that “using the elegantly beautiful and classic Parisian form, the manufacturer simply added a cap on top to prevent suction and therefore ease of separation.” Plus, the material and the shape are beautiful.
Although there aren’t any professional written reviews, Amazon customers have given it 4.1 stars. The price is about half of what many competitors charge, and consider this: whether it’s a Boston or a cobbler, the shaker is going to be the core of your bartending kit. The glass, steel or plastic cup system is where shaken drinks are going to get mixed up before they’re poured through a strainer and into your glass, and it can double as a stirring glass.
Another top choice is what’s known as a “cheater tin,” or a Boston shaker with two metal cups. Karel and Solomon, along with Momofuku’s deBary, agree on a Boston-style shaker, specifically Cocktail Kingdom’s Koriko shakers. In addition to the set that comes complete with both a 28-ounce and an 18-ounce tin, you can buy the small and large tins individually on Amazon. These bartenders say its best because of the great, consistent construction quality, steel build, weighted bases, and the fact that it forms a leakproof seal. We really like this set a lot, but the cost of shipping is a problem. Cocktail Kingdom charges $8 and up for the shipping and only has a retail outlet in New York City. This effectively adds 50% or more to the price if you buy online, bringing it to a cost that’s higher than necessary. If you can get your hands on it, great, but it’s not worth going out of your way.
Although we we often agree with our friends at Cook’s Illustrated, we found its piece on cocktail shakers (subscription required) focused too much on the high-end shakers with less-than-useful features. Of the ten shakers it tested, seven cost $29 or more and were more fancy than necessary. Many have features such as screw-on lids that can be nice but don’t fundamentally change what the shaker does. At the top of its recommended list is Metrokane’s Fliptop Cocktail Shaker—surprising, as it has a 2.7 star rating on Amazon. Van Flandern dismissed it as having “poor design,” but “beautiful aesthetic,” and his ultimate verdict was “pass.”
The Bullet Cocktail Shaker is also a high pick on the list and it has a better user rating, but it still lists at $25 and goes for almost $23. The only Boston shaker it recommends is no longer available.
That said, premium, gadgety shakers can be quite nice, but won’t really produce better results. The bells and whistles give you shakers that are dead-simple to use, but once you’ve got a handle on shaking, that extra cost just isn’t worth it. We tested OXO’s new Good Grips 18-Ounce Steel Cocktail Shaker, 360-Degree and were quickly enamored with its solid construction and neat push-button strainer system, but not its $30 price tag. According to Van Flandern, it’s “a clever design, but not built for speed.”
Libbey makes a Boston-style Shaker Glass Set that caught our attention with its low price—it goes for only $10 at Target—and the inclusion of a strainer. Unfortunately, it has a letdown. “As a professional I prefer the Boston Shaker, however as a set, the Hawthorne strainer is too small for the glass and the thick handle prevents the coils from doing their function,” said Van Flandern. We also found the mixing glass to be too heavy.
Although it’s pretty inexpensive, and from OXO, which is almost always a good sign, we don’t recommend the $10 Good Grips Plastic Cocktail Shaker. The lid’s fit is good, and one-handed operation was easy, we found it to be too small to allow our favorite ice cubes—Tovolo’s King Ice Cubes—to move around, and the fact that the plastic didn’t get cold threw us off. Notably, Cook’s Illustrated didn’t test these (or the Oggi or Koriko shakers, for that matter). Any of them will do the job, but the Marilyn is a great choice for home use.
Although your favorite bartender may freepour drinks right from the bottle into the shaker tin or stirring glass, the best way to accurately measure out the components of your drink is by using a jigger.
“It used to be that when you saw a bartender using a jigger…you assumed he was either a new bartender or micromanaged by his superiors,” says Derek Brown, James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist and co-owner of the Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington D.C., writing for The Atlantic. “With the rise of bartending culture and classic cocktails, the jigger has become the mark of precision and care in crafting cocktails.”
Jiggers are sometimes sold individually, but can also come in sets, and allow you to measure out portions easily and accurately. Most are two-sided metal cups with a different liquid capacity on either end; 1-ounce/2-ounce and ½-ounce/¾-ounce are common. But these are limited in functionality since they lack easily visible quantity indicators—you can only accurately measure the pre-determined amounts, even though recipes sometimes call for measures in between. Sometimes, the cups aren’t even labeled. They can also be messy if you’re flipping back and forth, and you’re generally better off when you can have one accessory instead of two separate ones.
Here’s what Brian Van Flandern had to say about jiggers: “The biggest problem for the home user when using a jigger is making sure that you know what the proper pour levels are. Many jiggers don’t list on either side how much they pour and jiggers have many different sizes. If a recipe calls for a ½ of liquid and your are using a 1 oz. pour, you can ruin a cocktail. Also, the home user is traditionally more cautious than the professional when it comes to fill levels. A professional knows that a jigger must be poured right to the very top so that the liquid is almost overflowing. The home user tends to get it close to the top which means they could be short changing the cocktail by 1/8 oz. of liquid or more. This can also have a dramatic change on the cocktail as well.”
How do I use it?
A jigger is just a small liquid measuring cup that you pour cocktail ingredients into and then dump the contents into your mixing vessel. Because you’re normally working in small quantities of two ounces or less, a full-sized measuring cup won’t do, and because you want accuracy, a shot glass isn’t right for the job either.
To come up with our contenders for the best jigger, we searched Amazon ratings and search engine results, in addition to our interviews with bartenders. There are a handful of opinions out there, but no authoritative sources have run comparisons of the best options. We chose the handful that we tested from the highest-rated on Amazon and those that got mentioned by experts by name.
Surprisingly in this case, your best bet is to go with something less traditional—the OXO Mini Angled Measuring Cup wasn’t originally designed to be used as a jigger, but it turns out to be an awesome tool for the job. With an MSRP of only $5, it costs less than most jiggers do and is easier to use. It does go for double that price on Amazon, though, so it’s probably worth buying elsewhere if you can find it. We picked one up at a local supermarket.
As with most measuring cups, there are measurements along the side of the clear plastic cup, but they’re also marked off on an angled surface inside the cup. This allows you to know how much you’re pouring from above and means you won’t have to be flipping jiggers over and over again, potentially making a mess. It measures ¼ ounce, ½ ounce, 1 ounce, 1½ ounce, and 2 ounces, and easily pours into your shaking or stirring vessel. Pick one of these up, and you don’t have to worry about more measuring tools. “You’ll need at least 3 varying jiggers to get all of the measurements you’ll want represented,” says Elixir’s Ehrmann. A ¾-ounce measure is all we could really ask for in terms of an improvement.
Our expert testers also agreed here. Van Flandern said “while I am not normally a fan of plastic, this one is dishwasher safe and allows the user to accurately measure in both ounces, tsps, milliliters and even cups. It is easy to see the measurements even in low light as the inside is marked with clear red lines…the high quality of the plastic does not emit any odors that can alter the flavor of your drink.” Additionally, in his roundup of jiggers, Serious Eats’ Michael Dietsch says the Mini Angled Measuring Cup is the top choice. “I love this darned thing and I use it daily. I even preferred it during my stint as a pro bartender.”
OXO makes a few other measuring tools that are close runners up, but aren’t as great as the Mini Angled Measuring Cup. Its Steel Angled Measuring Jigger ($7) is essentially the same product, but in steel rather than plastic. Derek Brown uses them, but warns they’re “useless behind a low-lit bar, as the metal with black lines is hard to read without bright lighting.” The plastic version is a smarter pick because it’s more versatile. The May/June 2013 issue of Imbibe magazine—the text of the Gear article isn’t available online—reiterates the visibility issue, but says the jigger “measures with 100 percent accuracy, and the tapered spout ensures easy control when pouring into a mixer tin.” That said, if you’re mixing in your own house, this is less of an issue since you can just turn on the lights. But all other things equal, better visibility tips the scale in favor of plastic.
The Steel Double Jigger is also a good choice, but is a bit more expensive without adding much functionality. The top seller on Amazon in the jigger category, it’s unique in that it offers multiple measurements per cup. One side is marked at ⅓ ounce, ¾ ounce, and 1½ ounce, while the other measures ¼ ounce, ½ ounce, and 1 ounce. We like it (and at $9, it won’t break the bank) but it has the same visibility issues as the steel-angled measuring jigger and is still more expensive than the other options, and might not be as easy to use for some because of the flipping that’s required for different measurements.
There are plenty of generic jiggers out there, including such inexpensive options as the Stainless Steel Double Jigger from Bonny Bar. Van Flandern describes it as a “purely utilitarian piece of functional equipment,” and says “it could be found behind most bars and works just fine. My big problem with this jigger is that there are no listed measurements.” It’s a better option for more seasoned bartenders who know their measurements by sight and find the design appealing.
There are three different kinds of strainers: Hawthorne, julep and tea (or “fine”), but they all do the same thing: get your drink to the glass, and keep all the ice and other particulates that went into making it out.
The Hawthorne is what most people likely think of when they picture a drink being poured from a shaker into a glass. Usually paddle-shaped, its trademark is a tight ring of coils. You hold it inside the lip of the cup, and pour away. If you’re only getting one, this is the one you need.
Next, the julep strainer is usually used with stirred cocktails. It’s pretty much a big spoon with holes in it, made to fit inside a stirring glass. “If you have one handy, super. If not, a Hawthorne strainer will get the job done,” say the guys behind Speakeasy Cocktails.
Finally, the super fine tea strainer serves as a second line of defense; it’s there to catch anything tiny that might’ve made it through the first round of straining. Nice, but not necessary. You’ll often see drinks being poured directly through a Hawthorne or julep into a tea strainer stationed above a glass in fancier bars and restaurants.
The one strainer you have to have to go along with a Boston shaker—or hybrid Boston/Parisian, in the case of the Oggi model we recommend—is the Hawthorne style, and we think you should pick up OXO’s model for only $7. It’s not necessary with our recommended shaker, as there are strainer holes, but it does allow for a finer strain, especially important with leafy herbs and the like. As with jiggers, there’s not a lot of comparative work on strainers out there, so we relied heavily on expert opinions and Amazon rankings to choose our contenders.
Bartenders love it, and so do customers on Amazon, who’ve offered an average rating of 4.8 stars. That’s an impressive figure, even for the relatively small sample size of 32 reviews at press time; the lowest rating is three stars. Momofuku’s deBary considers this strainer one of his essential tools. We’ve also seen it used firsthand in José Andrés’ awesome Oyamel in D.C.; order a “salt air” margarita and it’ll be poured through a Steel Cocktail Strainer. (It’ll also be delicious.)
“The OXO Hawthorne strainers and the OXO barware in general is very, very good for the home user,” Brian Van Flandern told us. We had him try a pair of strainers, and compare them to his vast knowledge of others on the market. “This stylish modern coil strainer is highly sought after among professionals because of its form and function. It has three unique features which distinguish it from a standard Hawthorne. A: It has no handle which often gets in the way and serves no real purpose. B: The upper lip is ergonomically rounded so that if the strainer is pushed forward too far, liquids will not spill around the sides. C: It has a rubber slide grip built into the metal frame for comfort and accurate precise pouring. A very clever design that looks and works great.” We’ve even seen him using the strainer in appearances on Food Network’s The Barefoot Contessa.
Speakeasy Cocktails recommends you “look for one with tight coils, the better to snare shards of ice and unsightly chunks of muddled fruit.” Like Van Flandern, we were impressed by just how tight and solid feeling the coils of this one do feel, especially compared to others that felt more like cheap, thin metal. That means more of your drink actually gets properly strained.
Compare the OXO strainer to Swissmar’s Stainless Steel Cocktail Strainer. Van Flandern says “While this strainer looks nice and feels good in your hand, it has three major flaws. A: It has a short unbalanced thick handle which butts up against the lip of the tin, preventing the coils from doing their job which means ice chips in your drink. B: The head of the strainer is much smaller than the average shaker tin and therefore has greater leakage on the side. The unskilled barperson will get more liquid on their bar than in the glass. C: The handle is not balanced which allows the smaller head (despite two small metal wings) to fall into a larger tin if pulled back too far (which is often the case because of the thick handle).”
Also important: the Steel Cocktail Strainer costs about the same or less than many of the strainers on the market. At Cocktail Kingdom, for example, Hawthorne strainers start at $12.
While not absolutely essential for every cocktail, a citrus juicer is smart to have around because it allows you to extract fresh lemon and lime juice for cocktails. There are a number of different types on the market, starting with your hands, which are free, but as Elixir’s Ehrmann puts it, “Sure you can use your hands to squeeze a lemon, but though you can also use your fingers to strain a cocktail, would you?” On the other end of the spectrum, you can get giant-lever based or electronic mechanisms running up to hundreds of dollars.
Finally, there are citrus presses. Almost always made of metal—some incorporate plastic—these hinged devices are generally around 9” long. The two handles terminate in concave cups at the hinged end, with the top cup fitting inside the bottom one. You place your lemon or lime in the bottom cup, cut side down, and then squeeze. The juice runs through openings, allowing it to be collected. Some, including the Two-in-One Lemon Juicer/Squeezer from Amco, have an insert that allows you to switch between lemons and limes, while others are offered in different sizes, depending on the citrus you’re juicing.
Of these styles, the professional bartenders we spoke to consistently recommended presses, and said they use them at home. “A hand press is the easiest, most efficient tool for making drinks a la minute,” says Ehrmann. Todd Thrasher is the general manager of Restaurant Eve and the man behind its speakeasy lounge PX, named one of the best bars in America by a number of publications. He believes “unless you’re having a party for ten or 15 people…a hand press works well.” The same goes for Leo Robitschek, the bar manager for The NoMad in Manhattan, which was nominated for the 2013 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program. “If you are the occasional citrus juicer, I would use a hinged press juicer. They are the easiest to clean, are very effective, and take up little storage space.”
How do I use it?
To use a citrus press, you first cut your lemon or lime in half. Then the cut end gets placed face down in the bowl of the juicer, and the arms squeeze together while the press is positioned over a cup or a bowl. The juice will run out through the bottom, while the seeds and pulp will get caught up. Repeat until you have the desired amount of juice. Our friend Kevin Liu has an article about getting the most out of citrus posted on Serious Eats that’s worth checking out, while an article by Michael Dietsch on the same site recommends cutting off the knobby ends. We found rounder, rather than longer, lemons tended to work better.
There aren’t a huge number of reviews on citrus juicers, but our friends at America’s Test Kitchen tested both inexpensive citrus juicers and electric citrus juicers (subscription required), coming up with results that very much fell in line with ours. Additionally, Serious Eats’ J. Kenji López-Alt wrote about juicers a few years back, but only covered a few models.
To verify the experts claims, we tested a total of 16 different citrus juicers—17, if you count hand juicing. This includes seven hand presses, a reamer, and four reamers on bases. With each model, we juiced five lemons, and measured the mass of the juice extracted against the starting mass of the fruit to get a percentage. All of the lemons were of the same variety, purchased at the same time, from the same grocery store, and weighed between 96 and 154 grams, averaging out around 119. The juice got frozen for later use, and some of the rinds had the honor of becoming limoncello. A few oranges and limes were sacrificed, as well.
After all of our research and testing, the citrus press from Chef’n came out on top. Not only did it perform well in our tests, but the press-style juicer is what most bartenders recommend for home use, and many of them even mentioned this one by name. Customers on Amazon love it, too; it has a 4.3 star rating. Thrasher uses FreshForce at home, and it also comes recommended by Elixir’s Ehrmann (he calls it “pretty solid”) and Chad Solomon, from the beverage consultancy Cuffs & Buttons (and previously of New York’s famous bar, Milk & Honey). Along with that praise, we appreciate the efficiency, innovative design, and price—a little under $20. Serious Eats and The Kitchn like it, too. The former calls it “a great idea,” and says “it does make squeezing easier,” while the latter says “it works like a dream.”
From a distance, FreshForce Citrus Juicer looks like the other presses we tested, but once you get up close, you’ll see there are some differences. Instead of an all-metal design, it’s mostly made of heavy plastic. The only part that’s metal is the cup that presses down on your lemon or lime, and wisely, it’s not painted or enameled. “I prefer the unpainted metal ones because eventually that acidity from the citrus chips or flakes the paint on the metal,” says Brian Van Flandern. Ehrmann echos that: “Try to get ones that have no paint or finish. Just like a muddler, that finish will eventually chip off into your juice.” If you’re worried about the juicer feeling cheap because it’s not all metal, don’t. It weighs almost a pound and feels totally solid.
The other distinguishing feature is the gear mechanism at the hinge. It’s there to increase juicing power and minimize hand strain. Notably, the hinge seems to be the problem point with most juicers; when something breaks, that’s what it is, so having the extra support there is appreciated. We did find this one a bit easier to squeeze than others, and quite comfortable, but we didn’t replicate Chef’n’s claims of 20% more juice than other handheld juicers. In our tests, FreshForce extracted an average of 32.26% the mass of our lemons in juice, which is just a bit more than juicers from Amco, Fox Run and Norpro, which extracted 31.64%, 31.57%, and 30.78%, respectively . It also worked well with limes, although anything larger than a small orange will be an issue.
Those comparable juicers all cost about the same, if not a bit more, than this one, and have their own issues. The first two are painted, and the companies seem to source their products from the same place, while Norpro’s Stainless-Steel Citrus Juice Press literally fell apart in America’s Test Kitchen’s experiments. We didn’t have any issues with it though, so it seems to us a worthy alternative. It’s popular on Amazon with a 4.3 star rating.
If there’s any downside to FreshForce, it’s that seeds can sometimes slip through. In all our testing, this only happened once or twice, but it did catch our attention.
Reamers are the most basic tool. Usually made of wood, or sometimes metal, they’re generally inexpensive. At one end is a handle, and at the other, a series of ridges running around a cone, terminating in a point. The pointy end gets plunged into the exposed innards of the fruit, and then you twist and twist, letting the juice run into a bowl or cup for collection. Out of all the methods we tried, this was the one we liked the least. It’s messy, it’s not easy to control where the juice actually ends up, and there’s nothing to strain the seeds and pulp out of the juice, meaning it adds an extra step.
A more advanced take on the reamer sees it positioned on a horizontal base, often with a straining system, and a bowl to collect the juice. The concept is the same, but instead of having to direct the juice, it flows right where you want it. Take that one step further, and you have electric citrus juicers that have reamers attached to motors. While this might seem like overkill, they do a great job, and aren’t always as expensive as one may think. But they are more appropriate for creating quantity of citrus liquid appropriate for drinking with breakfast rather than the squirt necessary for cocktails.