Food News

Why I collect cocktail shakers

Bar czar Sven Almenning likes to mix a bit of theatre with his cocktails and he has a collection of shakers to prove it.

Sven Almenning

Ben Hansen

I’ve made a habit of collecting rare and elaborate cocktail shakers. Visit any of the bars I’ve opened and you’ll see the evidence in action. At Eau De Vie in Melbourne and Sydney you’ll likely witness cocktails being poured out of fanciful shakers – shaped like blimps, teapots or bells. At The Roosevelt, in Sydney, you may also spot shakers in the form of penguins, golf bags, hourglasses and dumb-bells displayed in the glass cabinets.

To me, these shakers hark back to a time when the art of the cocktail was practised in every home (especially in the United States), and your merit as a host was judged as much on your ability to produce a well-made Manhattan as it was your skills in the kitchen. It’s probably no coincidence that the golden era of cocktail-shaker design, when it reached the height of shape-shifting, neatly coincides with Prohibition in the States; most of the now famous shakers were produced during the 1920s and ’30s with designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Russel Wright and Lurelle Guild getting in on the action.

What I love most about cocktail shakers, in addition to the pieces of history many represent, is their sense of theatre. Preparing a cocktail in a silver-plated Art Deco penguin shaker and pouring it through the beak adds something special to a gathering of friends that a standard cocktail shaker just can’t. Offering your guests a sterling-silver Tiffany vermouth dispenser in the shape of a small oil can (or, a step further, a Gorham silver vermouth syringe) from which they can add their preferred amount of vermouth to their ice-cold Martinis, similarly adds something intimate and memorable.

Enjoying a cocktail should be about more than just the drink itself; it should be an experience and an occasion. And this is why when you visit our bars, we aim to be both theatrical and fun. Our use of the Lady’s Leg cocktail shaker (circa 1936) is particularly well known. For years we’d serve our Lady’s Leg Cosmopolitan in these beautiful glass shakers – fashioned in the shape of a lady’s leg dressed in a silver shoe – to be shared among a group of four people. Sadly, after the bar team broke a few of these irreplaceable gems, we had to retire the drink from our list.

It’s hard to pick a favourite among my collection, but the cocktail shaker that kick-started my obsession, the Gorham artillery-shell shaker, holds a place very close to my heart. Made from copper, brass and silver plate, this work of art is shaped like an 18-pounder shrapnel shell (used by the British during World War II) and dates back to around 1918, making it nearly a century old. The bottom half, which is made from brass, contains a stand holding four glasses while the top, silver-plated half is the shaker, with strainer.

Acquiring such an awesome piece for my collection came with complications, however. When I finally managed to buy it, from a collector in the States, to bring it into Australia I had to get a licence to import firearms. Initially I wasn’t keen on the idea, but when Customs threatened to destroy the shaker unless I got the licence to import and export firearms (the latter so it could be sent back to the original owner), I bit the bullet – so to speak – and went through the process of becoming an arms dealer.

For a while, we used the Gorham shell on the bar at Eau De Vie to serve our Smoky Rob Roy, a sweet whisky cocktail with billowing smoke and liquid nitrogen. But it has since been retired to my home office, where it’s used to shake up, appropriately enough, Nuclear Daiquiris, or to stir down ice-cold Martinis.

In my opinion cocktail shakers shouldn’t collect dust on the shelves, nor should they be run-of-the-mill. Instead, they should be used frequently to create a little theatre, and spread joy and surprise – even if it means breaking a few legs along the way.

Sven Almenning is a co-owner of several bars in Sydney and Melbourne, including Eau De Vie, The Roosevelt, Boilermaker House and recently opened restaurant-bar Mjølner.

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