How to Use A Cocktail Strainer (Correctly!)

how to use a cocktail strainer
Joe | Last Updated: November 24, 2023
I'm Joe, a veteran bartender with over a decade in the industry and a burning passion for mixing drinks.

The cocktail strainer is an essential bar tool that is used in cocktail-making to separate ice and solid ingredients from a mixed drink before pouring it into a serving glass.

It’s a type of sieve that is placed over the mouth of the glass or cocktail shaker, typically to remove the ice after the drink has been chilled and mixed.

With so many bar tools to become familiar with, it’s common for new bartenders to feel nervous about using the cocktail strainer for their first few times, but there’s really no need to be.

In this guide, we’re going to walk you through how to use a cocktail strainer so that the next time you find yourself making cocktails, you are filled with confidence and can impress your guests.

Let’s get into it…

What Is A Cocktail Strainer Used For?

Cocktail strainers are used to remove ice, fruit, and other solids from a mixed drink before it’s then poured into a serving glass and presented to the customer.

Strainers prevent any remnants of the cocktail creation process from making their way into the finished cocktail.

how to use a cocktail strainer

They’re a vital bar tool that is used in conjunction with the cocktail shaker, specifically Boston cocktail shakers that do not have built-in strainers.

It won’t always be necessary to use a cocktail strainer for every drink, for example, if the shaker already has a strainer built into it or there are no solid ingredients being mixed.

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How Does A Cocktail Strainer Work?

The goal of using a cocktail strainer is to remove various solid items before serving the drink to a guest, so strainers are designed in a way to do exactly that in the most efficient way possible.

Hawthorne strainers are affixed with a coiled spring which traps slivers of ice and other ingredients, which prevents them from sneaking their way into the serving glass.

Similarly, fine mesh strainers can be used for drinks that need to be a little smoother than usual, and these work the same way, only they can catch smaller pieces.

The end goal is the same with any cocktail strainer, the fine holes that pierce through them help sieve out anything that shouldn’t be in the cocktail.

How To Use A Cocktail Strainer

Now that we know the purpose of cocktail strainers and how they work, let’s take a look at how to use each different type of cocktail strainer correctly so that you’re never caught off guard again.

Hawthorne Strainer

The Hawthorne cocktail strainer is by far the most commonly used in bars and restaurants all around the world, and for good reason, it helps revolutionize the bartending industry.

Its design can look complicated at first, but it’s actually very simple once you understand how to use it.

Hawthorne strainers are made to fit perfectly over a regular pint glass or cocktail shaker without any fixtures, meaning it’s quick and easy to use and won’t slow the bartender down by having to lock it onto the shaker.

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They have a handle at the bottom which makes them easy to hold, then at the top of the plate, there are a number of punctured holes that are used for the straining.

On the other side, you’ll see the coil that is used to trap any pieces of ice and allow the Hawthorne strainer to engage the double-straining function.

Steps for using a Hawthorne cocktail strainer:

  1. Pick up the strainer by the handle and place it over the glass or cocktail shaker with the coil facing toward the bottom. Use the tabs to keep it from falling into the container.
  2. Hold the shaker near the top using your dominant hand and push the strainer down towards the bottom of the tin so that there is no gap that could allow the mixture to spill out.
  3. Lift the cocktail shaker up and hold the strainer in place whilst you pour the liquid into a serving glass and allow the ingredients to be trapped by the strainer.
  4. Once all of the mixture is poured into the cocktail glass, snap your wrist back one time and tilt the shaker up high so that all of the mixed fluid is used and out of the shaker.

Julep Strainer

Next is the Julep strainer, which is the oldest of them all and was created in the 19th century when ice became a key component to making cocktails.

Long before the invention of plastic straws, this strainer allowed people to drink from their glass without getting a mouthful of ice and julep.

It looks like a small bowl that has perforated holes that allow the liquid to slip through but trap any ingredients and ice remnants.

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This cocktail strainer is very easy to use and fits perfectly into any regular-sized pint glass.

It has a handle to hold the strainer in place whilst the drink is poured through into the serving glass.

Steps to using a Julep cocktail strainer:

  1. Pick up the Julep strainer by the handle and place it in the glass with the strainer facing inwards so that it’s cupping the ice.
  2. Grab the mixing glass with your dominant hand and hold the strainer in place using your index finger.
  3. Lift the mixing glass up and tilt it over the serving glass then begin to pour the cocktail in.

Fine Mesh Strainer

Fine mesh strainers are used in all types of cooking to wash and rinse small quantities of ingredients such as herbs, but more recently they’ve begun being used by mixologists to serve silky smooth cocktails.

This strainer ensures that the finished cocktail has no bits of ice or fruit in it whatsoever, whereas chunks may slip through when using the other strainers.

Even after you’ve used a Hawthorne or Julep strainer, sometimes you may need to strain a bit more which is where the fine mesh strainer comes in.

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It’s a secondary strainer that is usually held under the first to ensure maximum effectiveness when mixing drinks that have a lot of ingredients.

They’re important bar tools that are available in many shapes and sizes and ensure that the drink served is free of any “little bits”.

Steps to using a fine mesh strainer:

  1. Pick up your cocktail shaker with your primary strainer inside of it with your dominant hand, using your index finger to secure it in place.
  2. Hold your fine mesh strainer underneath it and above the serving glass.
  3. Pour the shaker so that the liquid falls through the primary strainer and then also through the fine mesh strainer.
  4. Voila! Now you’ve got a double-strained cocktail that is super smooth.

Why Do Cocktail Strainers Have Springs?

The Hawthorne cocktail strainer is equipped with a coil (spring) so that it can trap both large chunks of ice or small slivers to prevent them from falling into your serving glass.

Springs are designed in a way that is perfect for filtering out unwanted nasties from entering the cocktail, so it’s perfect for having on a cocktail strainer.

The spring is also useful as it rolls inwards to fit securely inside the glass, preventing any mixture from spilling out and securing the strainer to the shaker.

Which Way Does A Cocktail Strainer Go?

The way a cocktail strainer faces will depend on which type you are using, but for Hawthorne strainers which are the most common, the correct way to use them is to have the spring facing down into the shaker.

This allows the built-in coil system to trap any ice and prevent it from going into the cocktail, but it also ensures that the liquid flows through without going everywhere and missing the glass.

If you were to use this strainer the other way around, the liquid would run over the spring and most of it would spill onto the floor.

Always remember that the spring faces down towards the liquid on Hawthorne strainers and you won’t go far wrong.

Are Cocktail Strainers Really Necessary?

When it comes to making cocktails, a cocktail strainer is a must-have for any bartender that’s looking to make high-quality drinks.

Cocktail strainers ensure that the drink served is silky smooth and has no ice or chunky ingredients left over which could get stuck in the guest’s throat.

This could not only cause harm to your guests, but if you work in a bar it could lead to a complaint which is bad for business.

Nobody wants to swallow small pieces of ice or lime with their cocktail.

Final Thoughts

Cocktail strainers are simple, easy-to-use bar tools that remove ice and chunky ingredients from the mixed drink that’s being poured into the glass.

Whilst some strainers may look intimidating at first due to their seemingly complex design, after a couple of uses you will quickly realize how easy they are to use.

Strainers are an essential tool for any home bar or alcohol-serving establishment as they ensure the cocktails being served are smooth and delicious.

Hopefully, this guide has taught you how to use a cocktail strainer correctly and you’re now full of confidence for the next time you find yourself creating cocktails.

Follow the simple steps above and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the cocktail strainer and impressing your guests.

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