For a bar tool with such an ancient lineage—descended from ancient Chinese tea strainers—the cocktail strainer has surprisingly modern origins. Yes, today there are two types of strainers. And you likely already know they are the julep strainer and the Hawthorne strainer. Is there anything new to know about strainers? Even we were surprised when we found that one has only had its name in common use since the 1970s.
The julep strainer was born first. It is a simple design: a large perforated spoon with a short handle that emerged in the mid-1800s. Though its design was unique, it bore a distinct resemblance to a number of specialized seventeenth and eighteenth century spoons. The French soupoudrer, with a slightly smaller bowl and longer handle was used to sprinkle sugar or other powders onto food. The British mote spoon used to remove motes (specks) from soup and later tea. And even more like the julep strainer, the tea caddy from the same era is occasionally so similar it could be mistaken for a julep strainer in miniature.
So, if the mint julep has been around since the mid-1800s, when was the julep strainer popularized? Certainly not in time for Harry Johnson to use one in that legendary 1869 New Orleans competition where he simply held the mouths of two mixing glasses together and let the drink flow from the crack between them.
An elegant julep strainer appeared in Louis Fouquet’s 1896 book Bariana. However, this strainer continues to add to the confusion about its origins. Occasionally, one of these beauties appears on eBay, usually listed as “vintage 1847”. However, as silver expert Nancy Gluck of Silver Season explains, the manufacturer’s name “1847 Rogers Bros”is not a production date, but a tribute to their invention of the style of electroplating used on their wares in 1847.
Gluck—whose website focuses on 1847 Rogers Bros products—said that the strainer seen in Bariana is referred to as the “star strainer” because of the star-shaped hole in the handle. She also indicated that this was the most common of three strainers produced by 1847 Rogers Brothers. The other patterns were Clover with a clover-shaped hole punched through the handle, and the Floral that had no hole and a thicker handle twisted with a floral pattern. Gluck also pointed out that none of these were part of a silverware or bartending set, but were each unique and elegant julep strainers.
There has long been debate as to the proper use of a julep strainer, especially since the best-known julep, the American mint julep, does not require a strainer. One theory is that the strainer was meant to be inverted on top of the mint julep to keep the ice away from the drinker’s teeth. Dental care was not as good back then as it is today. And certainly people suffered greatly from sensitive teeth. Another theory is that it was inverted atop the drink to keep the drinker’s mustache from soaking up the drink. Yet another theory hearkens back to an early medical definition, from before the advent of iced drinks, of a julep as a mixture containing no solids. In this instance, a strainer would have served a valuable purpose.
And the julep strainer itself was not only sold as a strainer. In Bariana it was a cuillere passoire, a strainer spoon. In Farrow & Jackson’s 1898 catalogue, it was an ice spoon. Then in their 1902 cocktail book, Recipes of American and Other Iced Drinks, it became an ice spoon and strainer.
The Hawthorne strainer appears to have been born in the United States, evolved from its predecessor. The earliest record of a strainer with the spring that now characterizes the Hawthorne is an 1889 patent for a “julep strainer”. In addition to the spring, there were holes in the middle, but they did not spell out “hawthorne”. The first to carry that name appears to be the one made by Bonzer, a British company.
The Bonzer strainer was first sold in the 1930s. The company itself was born in 1927. We have tried to reach them as to why they stamped their strainers with the word “Hawthorne” but as of press time we have been unable to reach Ron Cooper of Bonzer’s parent company Mitchell-Cooper. However, as far as we know, this was the first use of the word Hawthorne connected to this type of strainer.
However, this strainer was simply called a cocktail strainer. The first use we have discovered of the term hawthorn strainer appeared in John Doxat’s 1972 book The World of Drinks and Drinking. It quickly appeared in other cocktail books, but it was not until 1980 that it was written Hawthorne strainer. Even then, the term really did not catch on until the late 1990s, at the advent of the new cocktail Renaissance.
There is a practical point to looking at the origins of the strainers. Next time you can’t find your ice scoop, remember that is a task the julep strainer was originally made for. But not everything is old. Surprisingly, a new use for the Hawthorne strainer is emerging. The spring, separated from the strainer and placed in a cocktail shaker without ice creates an effective agitator for drinks made with egg whites. May new inventions and bartenders’ inventiveness never cease.