Whether it has been shaken or stirred, almost every cocktail you make in a shaker or mixing glass needs to be strained. It is a straightforward technique, but a few tips will help you get the cleanest drinks. The specific method you choose depends on the type of strainer and shaker you are mixing with and the drink's ingredients.
Why Strain Cocktails?
A basic bartending technique, there are a few reasons why it's essential to strain cocktails. The most obvious is when you don't want ice in the finished drink. Martinis and similar cocktails mixed with ice but served "up" fall into this category.
For shaken drinks served over ice, it is generally preferred to strain out the old ice and pour the drink over fresh ice. Shaking is a volatile process that considerably breaks down the ice, sometimes reducing the cubes to half their size and producing tiny shards. While this dilution is desirable for the drink because it mellows and mixes the flavors, too much water is not pleasant. The fresh cubes in the serving glass will last much longer than the shaker ice and prevent watered-down drinks.
Finally, straining filters out chunky ingredients like bits of fruit, torn herbs, or whole spices; they've done their job to flavor the drink and are no longer needed. While cocktails like the muddled cocktails like the mojito are generally served with these solid ingredients, it's not the best option for every cocktail. Also, some drinkers prefer the strained version because it prevents the unexpected mint leaf from getting stuck in their teeth.
Straining With a 3-Piece Cocktail Shaker
The three-piece (or cobbler) cocktail shaker is the easiest way to strain drinks because the strainer is built into the main lid.
When using this strainer, get a firm grasp on the mixing tin. Place your forefinger and middle finger on top of the strainer lid and hold it down firmly (it can and will come off if you don't). Slowly tip the shaker upside down over the serving glass and let the drink pour out. Due to the smaller holes, give it a little shake to move the ice around and ensure you get all of the liquid.
Straining With a Boston Shaker
The Boston shaker doesn't have a built-in strainer and requires a separate tool. There are two styles available: the Hawthorne strainer is frequently used and a julep strainer is beneficial for certain drinks. It's not a bad idea to have both in the bar, though the Hawthorne is slightly more versatile if you choose just one.
The Hawthorne strainer is very common to see in bars. This style has a flat top with two or four tabs sticking out for stability and a semi-circle of springs underneath. It is designed to fit snuggly inside a shaker tin or mixing glass; depending on the strainer size, using the tin may reduce drips and spills. This strainer is preferred for shaken drinks because the spring holds back most bits of ice, fruits, and herbs, though fine-straining is recommended for the cleanest cocktail.
To use the Hawthorne strainer, place it on top of the mixing tin or glass with the coil facing down. Hold the strainer in place with your index finger (and middle finger, if it helps) while grasping the tin firmly near the top. Slowly tip the tin over the serving glass to pour the drink.
When finished, it's best to clean the springs of a Hawthorne strainer as soon as possible. Herbs and fruits can get stuck in the coil and are harder to remove if allowed to dry.
The julep strainer gets its name from the mint julep cocktail. Before straws, it was used in the serving glass so the drinker didn't get a face full of ice. Today, this style is preferred when stirring drinks or using a mixing pitcher. It's an oversized perforated spoon that fits inside the glass at an angle and even allows the bar spoon to stay in place. The julep strainer should hold back large pieces without issue since stirring doesn't break down the ice like a vigorous shake.
To use the julep strainer, place it inside the mixing glass with the spoon's bowl facing down (it seems counterintuitive, but the ice falls into the bowl). Hold the strainer between the handle and bowl using your forefinger and firmly grasp the glass close to the rim. Slowly tip the mixing glass over the serving glass and pour the drink.
Breaking the Shaker
"Breaking the shaker" is a straining method that some professional bartenders like to use, and it doesn't require a separate strainer. Essentially, you will crack the seal of the Boston shaker and carefully pour the drink into the serving glass through the small gap between the shaker's two pieces.
The trick here is to control the pour without letting any ice fall through the gap or force the two pieces apart. It can get messy if you're not paying attention and requires practice (preferably with water and ice cubes to avoid spilling liquor). This method will not strain out any herbs or small solids.
Double- or Fine-Straining
Double-straining (or fine-straining) is often used when a cocktail includes solid ingredients that you don't want in the final drink. When double straining, you will run the drink through two strainers: one of those mentioned above and a fine-mesh strainer. Anything that made it through the first strainer will (ideally) be caught in the mesh. Some bartenders use it for every shaken cocktail as a backup to keep out tiny ice shards and the smallest herb and fruit pieces missed by the Hawthorne strainer.
To double strain, place your regular strainer in or on the cocktail shaker and hold a fine mesh strainer by its handle over the serving glass. Pour through both strainers into the glass.
A long-handled stainless steel sieve works best for fine-straining. It goes by several names because it has multiple uses in the kitchen and bar, so you'll find it called a chinois, skimmer spoon, superfine sieve, or tea strainer. The style does vary, but it's typically a round- or funnel-shaped wire basket about three inches in diameter (fitting perfectly inside the rim of most glassware) and eight inches in total length. If your filter is larger, pour very slowly to avoid spilling over the rim.