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In Defense of the Cobbler Shaker

Can the three-piece shaker produce discernibly different drinks than its two-tinned counterpart?

“They can be pretty,” concedes Tristan Willey of the three-piece cobbler shaker, a longstanding barroom staple with a vocal set of advocates and an equally dedicated camp of critics.

Devotees of the cobbler shaker claim that its size, shape and interior polish (which is often horizontal, rather than vertical) allow a higher degree of control and greater aeration of the final cocktail. “It is easier to circulate the ice in the shaker, instead of hitting the bottom,” explains Shingo Gokan, formerly of Angel’s Share, of the cobbler shaker’s shape. It’s a point best illustrated by the practice made famous by Kazuo Uyeda of leaving the rounded ice cube from the cobbler shaker in a Gimlet as a visual representation of the precise shake.

Orlando Franklin McCray, who calls on a lineup of four cobbler shakers when posted behind the bar at Maison Premiere, agrees, concluding that with the alternative, there’s simply “less finesse, there’s less control.”

The cobbler’s detractors, however, call horseshit. “The idea that the limited space and particular shape of the cobbler shaker can help you manipulate the dilution curve and aeration in an appreciably better way than with a typical tin set is inconceivable to me,” declares Willey, who swears by the tin-on-tin construction, better known as a Boston shaker. Citing greater volume, stackability and durability, he deems the standard set of shaking tins “superior in every way.”

It’s a view shared by many American bartenders, whose focus is often efficiency. The dead-simple, two-tin design is easy to clean, and offers the greatest distance from end to end for ice to travel and aerate a frothy drink. (“Or,” as Willey notes, “to stir in. Or scoop ice with. Or keep spoons in. Did I mention they are the cheapest option?”)

Certainly, the question of whether or not the two shakers produce discernibly different drinks is up for debate. But it might also be besides the point; advocates of the cobbler shaker will assert that the choice in using it is not so much technical as it is stylistic. At its essence, the three-piece shaker, a design largely unchanged since its invention in 1884, represents an approach that’s inherently anathema to efficiency—and that’s its greatest asset. As Frank Cisneros observes, “a cobbler shaker forces you to focus on one drink at a time. It’s physically impossible to shake two cobbler shakers simultaneously like you can with Boston shakers.”

That the cobbler is the default shaker in Japan, where cocktail service is famously detail-oriented, only adds to its romanticism. But again, the reason for its ubiquity across the Pacific is hardly technical. When asked why it was the default at Japanese bars to begin with, Gokan responds simply: “Because of history. In the past, there [was] no two-piece shaker in Japan. We’ve just [been] using three-piece for [a] long time.”

Even die-hard tin-on-tin users can recognize what the cobbler shaker represents, a nod to the golden age of cocktails and a degree of service rarely attainable in today’s high-volume drinkscape. Shae Minnillo, also of Maison Premiere—who jokes that he only uses Boston shakers out of necessity, to make up for time wasted by his colleagues using cobblers—admits, “It’s not unfounded. There’s a majesty in the extra time it takes to use a cobbler shaker.”

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