The shaker is unquestionably the most iconic cocktail tool, and pretty essential if you want to do cocktails right. The whole point of shaking is to get the ice churning back and forth which aerates and emulsifies the cocktail. To learn more about which cocktails should be shaken and why visit the Shaking vs Stirring page. To learn how to shake like a pro, head over to the Shaking page.
There are two basic types of shakers: the two-piece and the three-piece. The two-piece consists of two different sized vessels being wedged into one another. They can be two metal shaker "tins", or a standard pint glass and a larger shaker tin. The three-piece shaker, aka Cobbler shaker, has a built-in strainer on top that's covered with a third removable cap piece.
I personally prefer using a two-piece, as do the majority bartenders, while the common choice at home is a three piece. I'll get into the minutia between the two below. But know this: no matter what shaker you have, you can make delicious cocktails.
1. Boston Shaker: Tin on Tin - Tins are available in multiple sizes. I prefer an 18 and 28 ounce combination, or something similar. The more contrast in size between the two halves, the smaller the shaker will be when it's sealed because the smaller tin will fit further inside the larger one. Some prefer a smaller shaker because they find it less bulky and easier to handle; others want a larger one so there's more space for the ice. As always, it's entirely your call.
Cocktail Kingdom: "Koriko" Tins - These are what I use.
Winco: Shaker Tins - Just as functional and slightly more affordable, note the larger size gap.
2. Boston Shaker: Glass on Tin
For this, it's just the basics. There isn't really a higher end option.
Shaker Substitute - A shaker's cleanliness and efficiency makes it a tough tool to replace. But in an emergency, pretty much any container that will close tightly could potentially be used to shake cocktails, such as a large mason jar, as these guys cleverly figured out (just don't shake it too hard)l or a salad shaker, particularly OXO's which even has a spout you can even strain from.
Boston Style: Tin on Tin vs. Glass on Tin
The Boston Shaker is the most common two-piece style and what most bartenders use. It is operated by fitting the mouth of the smaller vessel - which can be a pint glass or a metal tin - inside the mouth of the larger vessel, always a metal tin.
The two halves are then manually sealed together so they don't come apart when shaking and then broken apart afterwards to strain out the cocktail. It takes a little practice at first - you can see my fool proof method on the Shaking page - but once you get the hang of it, the Boston Shaker is faster and easier to use than any other shaker style.
Parisian Style - This other two-piece shaker style, also called a French shaker, is less common in the U.S. As you can see, it's composed a little like a three-piece shaker but with no removable cap. It differs from the Boston shaker in that rather than the two halves being wedged together, they fit snuggly into one another.
Separating them can sometimes require a little bit of shimmying. They can't be popped open quite as easily as a Boston shaker. So speaking from a professional bartender's perspective, I prefer the Boston shaker. But aside from that, these are perhaps the most beautiful looking shakers of any style, and are a lovely home bar option.
Most Bartenders Prefer Tin on Tin . . .
In my experience, two metal tins are superior. Mainly because metal is lighter and more pliable, which gives it these functional advantages:
Tin on tin forms a tighter seal that is also easier to break. Breaking the seal with a pint glass requires more force.
Since they're lighter, you can shake harder with less effort.
Metal gets colder faster than glass, and thus, chills the cocktail more quickly.
Metal doesn't eventually break!
3. Parisian Shaker - These are not as common in the U.S., though you'll find plenty of options browsing the internet. I particularly like the silver and gold plated ones. Here's a basic example:
. . . Though Glass on Tin has its Benefits Too
While I don't prefer them, there are three points in favor of using a pint glass which I must acknowledge:
It can double as a mixing glass for stirring cocktails, which makes it a good option if you're looking to minimize your number of tools (of course, you could always stir in a metal tin as well).
You can see the ingredients as the cocktail is being prepared, which is visually appealing, particularly if there's any muddling involved.
If you don't want to bother with glassware, a pint glass can double as a drinking glass one you're done mixing. Cheers!
There are two primary benefits of using a two-piece shaker. The biggest one for me is there's more space for the ice to travel back and forth, which creates more aeration. In the smaller three-piece shaker, the ice is more cramped. Also, once you get accustomed to working with a two-piece, it's much quicker and streamlined than a three-piece.
The three-piece has two major conveniences going for it, primarily the removable cap piece that eliminates the need for a separate strainer. You also don't have to acclimate yourself to forming and breaking a seal as with a Boston style two-piece shaker. That's why it's a common choice for many home bars.
Problems - As I've alluded to above, despite these benefits, there are some drawbacks to a 3-piece shaker. The biggest one for me is they generally hold a smaller volume than a 2-piece, which means there's less room for the ice to travel. Additionally, the built-in strainer is quite narrow so it strains slowly. This problem is exacerbated if there are multiple drinks or any muddled ingredients which can reduce the flow to a trickle. Finally, both the cap piece and the larger top piece frequently get stuck and can be a nightmare to separate.
I admit, a lot of these are a bartender's pet peeves and at home they will be far less pronounced, if pronounced at all. So I'm not saying you should throw out your three-piece shaker. If you have one and like the cocktails it makes, that's all that matters. You make the cocktail, not the tool.
If you are in the market for 3-piece shaker, I'd go for a larger one, 28 ounces or so; that will alleviate the aeration problem somewhat.