Strainers are for transferring cocktails from the mixing vessel to the glass while keeping the ice at bay, and filtering out any muddled ingredients. There are two main types of strainers: the Hawthorne strainer, which has a metal coil, and the julep strainer, which has round edges and is perforated with holes. There's also a third type called a fine strainer, which is basically a small chinois, that's used in addition to another strainer for extra "straining insurance", but not by itself.
In cocktail bars, certain types of strainers are habitually paired with certain mixing vessels. The Hawthorne strainer is generally used with metal shaker tins while the julep strainer is used with mixing glasses (more about straining technique can be found on the Straining page). While it wasn't always done this way, today strainers are designed to reflect those pairings. So professional bartenders and ardent home bartenders will probably want one of each type in their toolkit. But you can definitely get away with just a Hawthorne strainer without sacrificing much. Just make sure it's the right size, see the All-Purpose Hawthornes below.
Of course, if you have a three-piece cobbler shaker, it has a strainer built right into the top, which eliminates the need for a separate one. Though personally, I've found three piece shakers strain pretty slowly, so you may still want a separate strainer, particularly if there are muddled ingredients.
Basic Hawthornes - For everyday straining needs, any of these will get the job done in spades. They all work more or less the same - excluding #4. Be sure to get one with a tightly wound spring. All of these examples do, but some of the cheaper options out there have gaps between the coils almost a centimeter wide, which kind of defeats the purpose.
1. One Prong Cocktail Strainer - I highly recommend this strainer, particularly for cocktail bars. It's what we've always used at Clover Club. It fits perfectly with large shaker tins and modern mixing glasses. It's also extremely affordable (less than $2!). The only small drawback is it's too wide to fit on pint mixing glass (which is why I don't consider this an all-purpose strainer). But if you have a julep strainer that's of course not a problem.
2. Winco-4 Prong Strainer - Another reliably solid and affordable entry from Winco. Personally, I don’t think all those prongs are necessary, but to each his own. This has a good tight spring but beware, many similarly designed four pronged Hawthornes do not.
3. Two Prong Hawthorne Strainer - This is a great home option that you can also use as an all-purpose strainer. For bartending I don't personally love this style because the prongs stick straight out and the cocktail will sometimes run up and drip off the them when I'm moving quickly, whereas prongs that stick out diagonally are out of the line of fire. Admittedly, this is a nitpick if there ever was one and not an issue outside of high volume bar settings.
4. Cocktail Kingdom Antique Style Strainer - As mentioned above, this one is a bit of an outlier and fashioned after the original Hawthorne strainer. It has no prongs - those came later - so it doesn't rest on top of the mixing vessel, but rather inside it like a julep strainer. At first I hated this strainer, because I didn't understand it, but now I see it for what it is, which is a hybrid of the two styles. This maybe isn't the best choice for your first Hawthorne strainer, but it’s a neat, and effective, alternative for the enthusiast.
Salad tongs or a slotted spoon are good options if you don't have a strainer. But if there are muddled ingredients, you may want to use a finer kitchen strainer.
If you only have one strainer, make it a Hawthorne. Its slinky-like coil allows it to conform to a variety of different sized mixing vessels while always straining quickly and effectively, even if there are muddled ingredients. The purpose of those prongs you see jutting out of the top and/or sides is so it can rest securely on top of any mixing vessel.
While Hawthornes all are composed similarly, as you can see from the examples shown here, there are variances between the designs, such as the width of the strainer, the number of prongs and the length of the handle. These do have some minor functional impacts, which I'll acknowledge below, but much of it has to do with bartender style and preference. By and large, Hawthornes all work the same.
However, if there were one operational factor you might want to consider when selecting a Hawthorne, it would be the "gate." Which you can read about below.
Storing Strainers - Hang Them Up!
You'll notice most of these have a hole at the end of the handle, which is for hanging them on a hook. If you work in a bar, or have more than two strainers, I highly recommend doing this. A pile of strainers is one cumbersome mess. At home I hang mine on the inside the door of my bar cabinet.
5. Koriko Hawthorne Strainer - Cocktail Kingdom’s Hawthorne strainers offer the best gate control of all. When closed, not only does the stream remain narrow, but the cocktail is strained almost as thoroughly as with a fine strainer. Only a heavy dose of muddled ingredients gives it some more trouble, and even then, not very much. This strainer is also designed for what’s called the “split stream” which is when the stream is divided into two streams, allowing the bartender to strain into two glasses at once (here's an example). It's a situation that doesn't arise too often, but is very cool whenever it does. The only issue with these is the lack of long prongs can sometimes cause the strainer to slip into larger mixing vessels. But that's an issue only exploited by high speed bartending.
6. Koriko 2 - Prong Hawthorne Strainer - This is another Cocktail Kingdom offering that solves #5's issue of having no prongs. It’s a fantastic strainer, though I still the nitpick as with #3, bethe straight out prongs can catch a stream and cause dripping if you turn it quickly.
7. The Modern Mixologist Strainer - This strainer from modern cocktail legend Tony Abou Ganim is for larger vessels only and it is excellent in those scenarios. It has a nice weight, a very fine coil and superb gate control.
8. Oxo Hawthorne Strainer - I've saved the best for last. This is practically the perfect strainer. It fits comfortably on all metal tins and mixing glasses and has a tightly coiled spring with superb gate control - though it doesn't strain quite as finely as #5 and #6. It also costs less than half of the other superior gate control strainers. But I don't use it for professional bartending. The only reason is there’s no hole in the handle, so I can't hang it up! Otherwise I would use it all the time. So if you aren't hanging up your strainers, I can't recommend this one enough.
Superior Gate Control
Modern Strainers with Superior Gate Control - Broadly speaking, benefit that all these strainers share is when the gate is closed, the stream flowing out remains narrow and doesn’t spread across the front of the strainer, which can cause spillage. Additionally, some are also designed to strain more thoroughly, which can eliminate the need for a fine strainer in certain situations.
Fair warning, we're delving into some bartender nerd minutia here, only the meticulous need apply. The gate refers to the gap between the edge of a Hawthorne strainer and the mixing vessel. Because of the Hawthorne's flexible spring, it can be pushed forward so the edges meet and the gap is closed off, or pulled back so the gap is widened. This is called closing or opening the gate, respectively. It can be controlled with the little tab you see towards the base of each handle.
The effects this has, broadly speaking, are that with a closed gate, the spring is tightened, so the cocktail flows out more slowly and is more finely strained. Conversely, with an open gate, the cocktail flows out quicker and less strained out. You can see examples of open/closed gates on the Straining page, where you can also read about scenarios when one might employ this technique and why.
Many modern strainers are designed to have, what I call, "superior gate control". You can see them grouped together above, and read about their advantages on the straining page. So if this is a technique you concern yourself with, those may be a better option for you. But if all this gate business sounds like bartender gibberish, don't give it another thought. You can make great cocktails no matter what the gate is doing.
The All-Purpose Hawthorne
As I mentioned above, while Hawthorne and julep strainers are often paired with different mixing vessels, many Hawthorne strainers can be used with both. The width of their spring just needs to be narrow enough to fit into standard pint and other mixing glasses. If it is, you can use it as a what I call an “all-purpose” strainer. Strainers that fit this description below are #3, #5, #6 and #8.
Origin of the Name
One of the patent owners of the Hawthorne strainer design was Dennis P. Sullivan who owned the Hawthorne Cafe, outside of Boston. He also owned a bar tool manufacturing company. However, Sullivan was not the device’s actual inventor, that would be William Wright, who assigned the patent to him.
In fact, strainer #4 below is a re-creation of the original Hawthorne strainer. Notice the word "Hawthorne" is written with the perforated holes on top.
Because they don't have a flexible spring or prongs like a Hawthorne, the julep strainers' uses are more specific. They can only be used with smaller mixing vessels; in larger ones they'll fall right in. This means, the majority of them are used with mixing glasses, which they nestle into perfectly. Because they have no prongs for resting on top, julep strainers rest inside the mixing glass at an angle, which creates a very smooth and elegant pour. They are also handy for scooping ice in a pinch.
You may be wondering, given all my talk about all-purpose Hawthorne strainers above, whether julep strainers actually have any practical uses, or if they're just a traditional bartender tool we like to keep around. It's a good question and you can see my assessment of it here.
Origin of the Name
Julep strainers actually have nothing to do with making juleps today. They were just strainers that were served with juleps, or any drink that had crushed ice - in the days before straws - as a way to keep the crushed ice away from people's teeth or, as has been recently proposed, beards. Eventually, the association with juleps stuck, and the name was coined.
Purchase: You can get these at any kitchen store, and they are all in a similar price range. Here are three good options.
The fine strainer, aka mesh, tea or cone strainer, is held over the glass to strain the cocktail a second time, catching any extra bits of ice or muddled fruit/herbs that made it through the first pass to give the drink a more pristine appearance and texture. It will typically be used in conjunction with a Hawthorne strainer, since those are used more often to strain shaken drinks and are more likely to have more ice shards and contain muddled ingredients.
This is a relative newcomer to the bar tool kit. It's really just a kitchen tool that has been adopted by the bar out of necessity. Just about any small chinois or tea strainer that's about 3 inches in diameter will do. The only factor you may want to consider is how fine the mesh is. It should be fine enough to catch everything, but not so fine that it gets clogged, which can be an issue with drinks that are heavy on muddled ingredients.
2. Winco Julep Strainer - Winco's solid and very affordable baseline option is not quite as sleek and ergonomic as Cocktail Kingdom’s, but it will certainly fulfill all your julep strainer needs, and at less than half the price.
3. Uber Bar Tools Julep Strainer - This is a nifty take on the julep strainer works surprisingly well. With its pointed shape, you'd think pieces of ice would get through, but they don’t somehow. The design also allows it to adapt to a wider range mixing glasses sizes. Like all of the Uber Bar tools, it’s not cheap, but is a work of art.
Purchase: The differences between julep strainers are very negligible, even for professional bartenders. Any of these will work fine for professional and home bartenders alike.
1. Cocktail Kingdom Premium Julep Strainer - These are what I use. They are constructed very similarly to the more affordable Winco julep strainer, everything is just a little bit more refined. They’re slightly larger and heavier with some intuitive curves that make them more appealing to handle. They work particularly well with the Yarai and other modern mixing glasses - which Wincos sometimes have trouble with - as well as standard pint glasses.