The julep strainer is the eight-track tape of bar tools, a transitional technology that was once everywhere and then nowhere. Lately, it’s enjoyed a small, feral return among cocktail cognoscenti, although it remains generally overlooked and underused.
The julep strainer is simple and Shaker-like in its design. It’s typically an unadorned disc of perforated steel, with slightly incurved edges and a functional handle. It looks like a full moon when in a glass, and it goes about its job without the need to attract attention. In this, it differs from the splashier and later Hawthorne strainer, which likes to flaunt its Shirley Temple curls and cute little mouse ears, and produces a frisky Wile E. Coyote sound when released from duty atop a mixing tin.
The julep strainer is a noble artifact of the cocktail’s first great ice age. Thanks to enterprising merchants, ice became widely available for cocktails starting in the early 19th century, even in hot-weather cities like New Orleans. As such, great numbers of drinkers needed an efficient way to separate liquid from solid. Tea strainers were recruited at the outset, as were slotted spoons of the sort used to scoop a poached egg from its hot bath.
These evolved into single-purpose ice-straining devices—often called “ice-spoons”—which blossomed during the Golden Age of Obscure and Arcane Tableware. (See: preserve spoons, nut spoons, bonbon spoons, sardine fork.) Silver julep strainers became popular wedding gifts, and they briefly rose above their utilitarian station, often being cast to resemble scallop shells. “Judging from the conspicuousness with which the cocktail strainer is displayed in the silversmith shops,” noted one newspaper in 1891, “one would think that it had at last entered the home of the New Yorker along with the silver opera glass, silver garters, silver salvers and all the silver goods.”
The fact that it was a popular household good among Gilded Age hobnobbers raises reasonable questions: Who used it, and what exactly did they use it for?
Contemporary accounts suggest that it was initially left in drinks served with crushed ice. Tipplers would keep the strainer in place while sipping, thereby avoiding the fate of being crushed by a small avalanche when draining the last drops. Poor dental hygiene is often cited for the use of the strainer—enamel-deficient teeth and cold ice don’t mix. But think about it: You’d still have ice-cold liquid coursing through your rotted canines, prompting yelps of pain. And an earlier, cheaper technology would be far more efficient at bypassing teeth: the drinking straw. (“Connoisseur julep drinkers now carry a small silver tube in their pocket, through which to imbibe the grateful beverage,” noted the New Orleans Picayune in 1839.)
A more reasonable conclusion is that the rise of the julep strainer had more to do with facial hair. According to Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore, the world’s foremost beard historian—and let us give thanks that someone has stepped up to assume this mantle—1853 marked the beginning of the golden beard age. Being resplendently hirsute was a mark of erudition—indeed, most doctors sported beards well into the 20th century. Cobblers, smashes and juleps overflowing with crushed ice would have left a mustachioed sipper looking like a Yeti in February. The julep strainer allowed the bearded to maintain a modicum of dignity. “Smashes should be drank through a strainer,” noted Leo Engel in his 1878 bar guide, adding that a “mustache cup” would also serve the purpose.
Toward the end of the century, juleps and cobblers became fusty and outmoded. Strained modern drinks like the Martini and the Manhattan were ascendant, and so the julep strainer migrated across the stick to become a bar tool. It worked perfectly well for holding back ice, although it could be slow and had to be paired with the right-sized glass or tin to be effective.
This did not escape the attention of inventors, including one H.C. Alden. In 1881 he patented a flat mesh strainer that wholly covered the top of a mixing vessel like a flat-brimmed boater, “thereby avoiding the necessity of having different-sized strainers for different-sized glasses or vessels.” However, it was the Hawthorne strainer, with its versatile coiled edge, that worked most efficiently. It swiftly became the Hoover Dam of the bar world, nightly holding back many metric tons of frozen water while furthering the advance of civilization.
Today you’ll often see both sorts of strainers sitting atop cocktail bars, but the Hawthorne almost always gets more play, while the julep strainer sits like an aging athlete, permitted a spot on the bench but no longer called in for the big game.
An informal survey of bartenders suggested the julep strainer still has its advocates—many still subscribe to the familiar wisdom that one uses a julep with the glass half of a Boston shaker, and the Hawthorne with the tin. Others have more specific reasoning: Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, for instance, prefers the julep strainer whenever pulp’s involved, since it’s far easier to rinse than the tenacious coils of the Hawthorne.
And then there are those who simply like the julep strainer because it requires a skill set that’s been partially lost, and welcome the modest challenge. These are the same people who no doubt choose a rake over a leaf blower, and film over digital. They are a heroic breed and should be celebrated, preferably nightly.
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