There are more tools available to the home bartender today than ever before. You can scroll page after page of cocktail shakers on Amazon, and even my local grocery store stocks professional-grade jiggers and julep strainers.
If you’re a new home mixologist, how do you know where to get started? What tools do you really need to mix up some Margaritas or a Martini? Let’s walk through the essential tools for anyone who enjoys mixing drinks at home, with budget-friendly options as well as alternative tools that you probably already have around the kitchen.
The most essential skill for any bartender is being able to measure liquids accurately. I love the ease of a simple metal jigger with clearly marked interior fill lines, but there are many options to consider:
So what’s the difference between all these types of jiggers? They all do the same job, so it really comes down to personal preference.
Each style feels a bit different in your hand and some are more spill-prone when pouring than others (the Japanese style can be the hardest for a beginner to use without drips).
Some styles are heavier than others (such as the bell-style jigger) and some professional bartenders prefer a specific style because of the speed with which they’re able to use it.
Of the more traditional jigger styles, I usually prefer the easy-to-hold and easy-to-pour bell-style jigger. Try a couple of different styles and see what works best for you!
My top choice for the beginner home bartender is the OXO mini stainless measuring cup. It features very clear interior fill lines and a tapered pour spout to avoid spills.
Alternatives that get the job done:
- Mini beaker (usually with markings in ml)
- Any measuring cup that has 1/8 cup and/or 1/4 cup markings
Proper measuring and the meniscus
No matter the type of measuring tool you use, be sure to use it properly. Fill the vessel to the exact measurement that you need. A little over or a little under can make a big difference in your finished drink.
So how do you know you’re measuring correctly? Let’s talk about the meniscus. When liquids are poured into a tube or a similar container, the liquid in the center dips down, and the liquid touching the sides climbs slightly up the walls.
This natural curvature at the liquid’s surface is the meniscus and it’s caused by surface tension. When measuring liquids, you want the lowest part of the curve to sit at the desired fill line.
Keep this in mind whenever you need to measure to the very top of your jigger. The liquid will be on the brink of overflowing when it’s filled properly.
Helpful liquid measurement conversions
|~ 1/8 oz
|1 bar spoon
|~ 1 scant teaspoon
|1 1/2 teaspoons
|1 1/2 tablespoons
|2 tablespoons (or 1/8 cup)
Citrus fruit juice yields
It’s helpful to know in advance approximately how many lemons or limes you’ll need, especially if you’re planning drinks for a group.
Of course, each fruit is different, but we can make a pretty good estimation based on the average yield of each type of citrus. Here’s a helpful guide for planning how many citrus fruits you’ll need:
|1 small lime
|1 large lime
|1 small lemon
|1 large lemon
|1 1/2 oz
Now that you’re measuring like a pro, it’s time to add your ingredients to a shaker or a mixing glass and chill things down.
Shaking a cocktail does two really important things to your drinks: it chills them and it also adds dilution. We want an icy-cold drink, and shaking the liquids with ice will rapidly cool them.
The ice that’s added to the shaker will melt slightly during the shaking process, adding a little water to the drink (usually around 1/2 oz). That small amount of water softens the flavors of the other ingredients and helps to add balance.
How to shake a cocktail
There’s no one way to shake a cocktail. Professional and home bartenders alike have their own preferred techniques and even preferred lengths of time to shake for. When you’re just getting started, here’s a rundown of the basics of cocktail shaking:
- Choose a shaker style that’s comfortable for you to hold and to pour from.
- Always add your ingredients first, ice second.
- Use plenty of ice – fill the shaker about 3/4 with ice.
- Hold the shaker with both hands, one placed on or near the top, securing the top part of the shaker, and the other hand placed on the bottom for maximum support. Try a simple back and forth shaking motion, bringing the shaker from your chest to your waist and back again.
- Shaking straight up and down is often harder on your upper arms and elbows, so instead try shaking “out and back,” starting close to your body and moving the shaker away from your body, following the natural motion of your arms bending.
- Shake for about 10-12 seconds, or until the outside of the shaker is frosted over (or until very cold, if not using metal tins).
- Immediately strain the liquid from the shaker into a chilled glass. Letting the drink sit in the shaker for too long will add more dilution, making it tasted watered down.
- If serving the drink over ice, fill the glass at least 3/4 with fresh ice.
Cocktail shaker styles
There are a few different styles of cocktail shakers, ranging from the classic two-piece Boston shaker to the more sleek and modern Parisian style, or the simple three-piece cobbler shaker.
While owning a shaker is a great way to improve your drinks at home, there are other ways to get the job done. A mason jar with a screw-on lid or even a plastic blender bottle will both work in a pinch. Let’s talk about the three primary types of cocktail shakers and the pros and cons of each.
A cobbler shaker is the most common type of cocktail shaker found in home bars. This style is comprised of three pieces: a tin, a lid with built-in strainer, and a cap. To use a cobbler, you add the ingredients and ice to the tin, then place the lid and cap on top and shake.
To serve, you simply remove the cap and strain the liquid through the shaker’s built-in strainer. A cobbler shaker is a great space saver and they can be quite small, making them easy to maneuver and easy to store.
Some drawbacks of the cobbler shaker are that the lid and/or cap can get stuck (and be very difficult to dislodge) and that the built-in strainer can easily clog.
If you want to make a lot of drinks with muddled fruit, the cobbler isn’t the best option for you. Instead, opt for a shaker with a separate Hawthorne strainer which will allow more liquid to pass through.
“Double strain” that liquid into your serving glass (this just means to pour the cocktail from the shaker through a fine mesh strainer and into the glass).
The Boston shaker is the choice of many professional bartenders. Its large volume and ease of cleaning make it a top choice for bars, where speed and efficiency are critical.
Of the three types of cocktail shakers, the Boston is the least beginner-friendly, although it really doesn’t take long to get used to holding, shaking, and opening it.
Boston shakers are sometimes sold with a metal tin and a mixing glass. If possible, opt for an all-metal setup. If the shaker were to come apart while shaking (which can happen, even to the pros), broken glass would make for a much worse mess than just a spilled drink.
This is one of the drawbacks of a Boston shaker – the seal can break and cause leaking, especially when dry shaking (shaking a drink without ice to build up froth).
Another con for the Boston shaker is that it is larger and a bit more awkward to hold and to shake. Once you’re accustomed to it, it becomes second-nature, so it’s just a matter of personal preference.
A great attribute of the Boston shaker is that they will typically hold at least two drinks at a time, meaning that it’s easier to batch cocktails and make more drinks more quickly. The super simple design makes cleaning it lightning fast, which again helps with speed and efficiency.
How to seal and unseal a Boston shaker
The biggest questions for a new Boston shaker user are how to get a good seal before shaking and how to quickly and easily break the seal when it’s time to pour it.
To use a Boston shaker, measure your ingredients into the smaller tin, then add ice to 2/3 – 3/4 full. Take the larger tin and place it on top of the smaller tin. Use firm pressure to afix the top to the bottom. You’ll notice that the top tin will sit at an angle, rather than straight up and down, like the bottom tin.
If you can pick up both tins by holding on to only the larger top tin, you have a good seal. The seal will also be reinforced once you begin shaking because of the cold.
Once your drink is ice-cold and the shaker and begun to frost over, stop shaking and place the shaker down with the larger tin on the bottom.
Place one hand on the bottom tin and one on the top and use a twisting motion to break the seal. If this doesn’t work, hold the shaker with one hand and use the heel of the other hand to firmly tap the place where the two tins meet. This quick, firm action will break even the toughest seals.
The beautiful two-piece Parisian style shaker is my personal favorite for its ease of use and cleaning. Like the Boston shaker, the Parisian uses two tins.
However, the top tin is much smaller than the bottom and fits perfectly on top like the lid of a cobbler shaker. The Parisian shaker’s appearance is similar to a cobbler shaker, but it does not have a built-in strainer or cap.
To use a Parisian shaker, add your ingredients and ice to the larger tin, secure the top tin in place, and shake until thoroughly chilled (about 10-12 seconds, or until the metal begins to frost over). Remove the top tin and strain the liquid using a Hawthorne strainer.
The pros of the Parisian shaker are that it’s fairly small and easy to hold, it’s very easy to clean, and there are no seals to worry about. The top tin goes on and comes off without getting stuck and it won’t leak during shaking.
A drawback of the Parisian shaker is volume. Because of their compact size, they often can only hold one drink at a time. Also some say that larger internal volume is also better for maximum aeration.
This means that the bigger the shaker, the more room for the ingredients and the ice to move, resulting in a different texture and greater foam (if shaking a cocktail with egg-whites).
Here are some great cocktail shaker choices for home bartenders:
- Viski Parisian Cocktail Shaker
- Cocktail Kingdom Usagi Heavyweight Cobbler Shaker
- Piña Barware Stainless Steel Commercial Bar Boston Shaker Tin Set
Cocktail shaker alternatives from your kitchen:
- Mason jar with a lid
- Blender bottle
If you have a cocktail shaker, you technically don’t need a mixing glass. Drinks that should be stirred can easily be stirred in the tin of a shaker or even in a pint glass.
However, the larger volume and straight side walls of a proper mixing glass make stirring drinks like Martinis or Negronis a breeze. And if you like to stir up a couple drinks on a regular basis, investing in a nice solid mixing glass is a great idea.
Cocktails should be stirred when they contain only spirits, liqueurs, wines, or syrups. This type of drink doesn’t need the extra agitation that shaking provides, and the texture of the finished drink will be much smoother and less frothy if it’s stirred. You can also avoid a lot of the floating tiny ice shards that shaking adds.
How to stir a cocktail
To stir a cocktail, add your ingredients to your mixing glass, then fill the glass about 3/4 with fresh (not melty and wet) ice.
Using a bar spoon (or even a long butter knife), stir until the liquid is thoroughly chilled, about 30 rotations. You’ll want to stir for much longer than you might initially think. It takes about 30 stirs to add enough chill and dilution.
A bar spoon is great for stirring cocktails because the bowl of the spoon can cradle the ice, allowing you to move the ice as one through the liquid. This is a better technique than vigorously agitating the ice within the liquid (which adds a lot of air to the drink).
Pro tip: Place the handle of the bar spoon between the middle and ring finger of your dominant hand. Cradle the ice with the bowl of the spoon, and use a smooth motion of the wrist to stir. This technique makes it much easier to stir smoothly, consistently, and quickly.
Once the cocktail is nice and cold, use a julep (or Hawthorn) strainer to strain the liquid from the ice. Learn more about the different types of strainers below!
Cocktail mixing glass alternatives :
- Tin from a cocktail shaker
- Any tall glass, such a pint glass
There are three types of strainers used for mixing drinks: the Hawthorn, the julep, and the fine mesh strainer. Generally speaking, the Hawthorn strainer is the only one you’ll always need.
However, if you like to add muddled ingredients to your drinks, or if you prefer an ice-shard free Martini, you’ll want to pick up an inexpensive fine mesh strainer, too.
What’s the difference between Hawthorn and julep strainers?
You may have noticed that Hawthorn strainers are often used for shaken drinks and stirred drinks tend to be strained through a julep strainer. Why is that?
It’s all about the size of the different tools. A julep strainer fits better within a mixing glass than a Hawthorn does, and the same goes for a Hawthorn strainer and cocktail shaker.
The julep strainer tends to have somewhat larger holes also, which is better suited to pouring a stirred cocktail. Hawthorn strainers often have very tightly wound coils, straining out more ice, citrus juice pulp, and other materials than a julep strainer could.
All of this being considered, there are Hawthorn strainers that will fit nicely in both cocktail shakers and mixing glasses, should you only want to buy one strainer type.
My top strainer picks for home bartenders are:
Every home bartender needs a good, long-handled bar spoon. Its the absolute best tool for mixing up those stirred classic cocktails and it’s also helpful for adding a small amount of ingredients like liqueurs.
Fortunately, good quality bar spoons are also relatively expensive. Here are some of my top bar spoon picks from Amazon:
Bar spoon alternatives:
- A long-handled iced tea spoon
- Butter knife
A good knife
A nice sharp knife is a home bartending essential. There’s nothing worse (or more dangerous) than trying to cut citrus or garnishes with a dull knife.
A good knife for bartending doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. I love a basic paring knife or small chef’s knife for most tasks. Here are a few of the knives I use in my home bar:
In addition to a good quality multi-purpose knife, you may also want to pick up a channel knife.
This simple, inexpensive tool makes it incredibly quick and easy to remove a long, thin strip of citrus peel for garnishes. I use my channel knife all the time and it’s still sharp, years later.
An elbow-style citrus squeezer is the home bar tool that I probably use the most. Most drinks (think sparkling water, iced tea, sodas, etc) are that much better with a squeeze of fresh citrus juice, so I use a citrus squeezer multiple times a day – not just for cocktails.
If you’ve ever made lemonade and had to squeeze lemons by hand, you’ll know that your hands tire very quickly. A citrus squeezer takes most of the work out of the task, and also yields a lot more juice than your hands alone can.
There are other types of citrus juicers, such as reamers, but I have found elbow-style squeezers to be the absolute best and least messy. Opt for a solid metal design rather than a coated one, as those tend to break down much more quickly.
Don’t have a citrus squeezer? Try this hack:
Cut your citrus in half, then use a pair of kitchen tongs to squeeze the juice from the fruit. Rather than holding the fruit with the tip of the tongs, place the fruit in the middle of the two tong arms so that you can use two hands to squeeze (one hand placed on the two tips, and one where the two arms meet).
A Y-shaped vegetable peeler is another favorite home bar tool of mine. This tool makes slicing a wide, thin piece of citrus peel quick, easy, and less dangerous than using a paring knife.
You can use plain toothpicks, but metal cocktail picks will last forever and they make garnishing your drinks so much easier (and prettier).
There are many styles, with some being longer and others shorter. If you like to sit your pick on the rim, you may need a longer style. If your skewered garnish with sit in the glass, a shorter style should be fine. Here are some of my favorites:
Blender (if you love frozen drinks)
If you’re a fan of Pina Coladas, Painkillers, Frozen Margaritas, or maybe a frozen Honey Paloma, you need a decent blender. The trouble with low quality, cheap blenders is that they lack the power and sharp blades to fully pulverize ice. A sub-par blender will give you chunky frozen drinks instead of that super smooth texture we all love.
It took me years to recognize that my old Hamilton Beach wasn’t up to the task. Budget blenders require a LOT of liquid just to function, and that leads to watered-down tasting drinks.
Here are two of my favorite blenders for frozen drinks, both under $200: