History

A Brief History of Cocktail Shakers, Part 1

A black and white photo of a couple at a bar with the man pouring a drink and the woman smoking a cigarette.
Since the original shaker's invention, the ubiquitous bar tool has been through many derivations — some stuck, others didn't. Ultimately, the unnecessary frills were scrapped for streamlined, simple designs. Photo via iStock/HultonArchive.

Long before there was the Boston, the French or the cobbler, the cocktail shaker had been invented in South America. Fragments of gourd with traces of alcohol in them have been identified as being for the purpose of mixing drinks as early as 7000 BCE. By 1520 CE, explorer Hernando Cortez wrote back to Spain of frothy cacao mixtures prepared in a "golden cylinder-shaped container."

But the cocktail shaker as we think of it today — in full performance-art mode — became part of the bar arsenal around the mid-19th century. Prior to this, the favored method of mixing smooth drinks was tossing them back and forth between two glasses. Supposedly, the shaker developed when someone (possibly an innkeeper) came up with the idea of putting the two glasses together. According to Stephen Viskay in “Vintage Bar Ware,” "Finding that the smaller mouth of one container fit into another, he held the two together and shook 'for a bit of a show.'" The result: cleaner, more thorough mixing of cocktails.

The New York Times credits George Foster with the first description of the modern shaker, written in 1848: “With his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his face in a fiery glow [he] seems to be pulling long ribbons of julep out of a tin cup.” But, since all-metal cocktail shakers were standard bar equipment by the mid-1850s, they probably came about somewhat earlier than that.

The new style caught on quickly, both in bars and for home cocktailers: who wouldn't be more excited to try their hand at mixing when doing so no longer required throwing liquid around your house? Cocktail books seized upon this moment to popularize the simplified technique. By the time he published his seminal 1862 “How To Mix Drinks,” Jerry Thomas was already instructing his readers simply to shake drinks, stating, "Every well ordered bar has a tin egg-nogg 'shaker,' which is a great aid in mixing."

But as brilliant and essential as the early versions were, it was just the beginning of both the cocktail and cocktail-shaker eras. As David Wondrich writes in his book, “Imbibe!,” "The 1840s vintage shaker was too simple and effective a device to escape the American need to improve things." Through the end of the 19th century, patents flooded in offering absurd numbers of tweaks, twists and terrible ideas about the simple cocktail shaker. From this wide world of inventors and bartenders, three types of shaker would stand the test of time, evolving from the original concept: the French, the Boston and the cobbler shaker.

Learn more about the forking history of the cocktail shaker in part 2 of this history, coming soon.

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