What Are the Different Types of Espresso Machines?

Espresso machines can be semi-automatic, super-automatic, automatic, or manual. Here are the differences between each.

Close up of the Lelit Elizabeth Espresso Machine brewing an espresso
Serious Eats / Nick Simpson

Although a skilled barista makes it look easy, a lot goes into pulling a perfect shot. They need to understand their espresso machine inside and out for consistency and speed.

For those just beginning their home espresso journey, the first step is acquiring the right machine, which can be daunting. The market is chock full of models that use different brewing methods and have extra features—not to mention how expensive they can be.

To figure out which espresso machine will work best for you, you'll need to know what you want out of a brewer, how much time you'd like to devote to learning, and what types of machines are available.

Types of Espresso Machines 

Home espresso machines are divided into a few categories based on the degree of automation they provide the user. These include semi-automatic, super-automatic, automatic, and manual. 

Semi-Automatic

Hand using steam wand grip on Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine next to glass mug and measuring cup
Serious Eats / Nick Simpson

Semi-automatic espresso machines are the most widely used in both home and professional settings. Their defining characteristic is that they allow the user to stop and start the brewing process with a button or switch.

“This is the way coffee gets made in cafes for a reason. It’s a balance of consistency and customizability that can both lead to repeatable, delicious results and give you room to tinker,” explains Maciej Kasperowicz, director of coffee and certified Q Grader for Trade Coffee. Using a semi-automatic machine gives the user control over the brewing process. For those looking to produce the best possible espresso and who are interested in dialing in variables and learning the ins and outs of pulling a shot, it's the way to go.

The biggest hurdle to using a semi-automatic machine is that it necessitates an investment in extra equipment. Most require a separate coffee grinder that’s built specifically for super-fine espresso and a quality tamper as well. For those who are serious about espresso, this isn’t necessarily a downside. Some of our favorite machines, like the Breville Express Impress, have built-in grinders and tamping mechanisms, but they tend to be less accurate than a dedicated grinder. “If you want the highest quality espresso, buying a machine that lets you choose a high-quality grinder instead of forcing you to use the integrated one is the way to go,” Kasperowicz says. 

Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine making espresso coffee with nearby laptop
Serious Eats / Nick Simpson

Nearly all of our favorite espresso machines are semi-automatic. This includes our top pick, the Breville Bambino Plus. It’s compact and affordable, while still having a quality steam wand and clear controls and instructions that make it accessible to newcomers. For those looking for a more hands-on machine that allows them to tinker, we recommend the Gaggia Classic Pro. It’s built similarly to a commercial espresso machine and offers a bit more control over the brewing variables while still having an intuitive interface.

Super-Automatic

A spinn coffee maker brewing coffee over ice
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

The next most widespread style of home espresso machine is the super-automatic, which has a fully automated brewing system. “You just drop in whole beans and press one button for the machine to freshly grind, dose, tamp, and brew the coffee,” Kasperowicz says.

The built-in grinder and ease of use do have a trade-off, though. Super-automatic machines offer a lot less control in terms of adjusting things like dose and brew time—factors that have a direct influence on how the finished coffee tastes. “Even if you’re not the kind of person that needs to tinker with your coffee brewing, if you’re going to be making espresso every day, the ability to personalize it a little more is good to have,” Kasperowicz says.

Even though it produces superior espresso, buying a separate grinder and dialing in the right grind coarseness may be too much of an investment for some people. “If you just want the coffee as quickly as possible without disrupting your morning routine, a super-auto can be a great choice,” Kasperowicz explains. “It’s minimal work, you’ll have fresh ground coffee without investing in a separate grinder, and some super-autos do have customization options in terms of grind size.”

As far as which super-automatic machine to buy, we like the Spinn Coffee Maker. It comes with a built-in grinder and has a fully automated, but unique, brewing process that employs an internal centrifuge. The centrifuge acts similarly to a salad spinner by using centripetal force to move the water through the coffee grounds. The espresso it produces is not quite traditional, but it handily beat Keurig and Nespresso pod machines in taste tests.

Automatic

A person using the touchscreen on the Breville Barista Touch Impress Espresso Machine with Grinder
Serious Eats / Nick Simpson

Anyone who has ever stopped into a busy coffee chain has seen an automatic espresso machine in action. This style of machine is similar in design to semi-automatic ones. The major difference is that automatic machines contain a flow meter. A flow meter measures the amount of water that goes into each shot and ensures the same amount of water is used each time—that way the machine automatically stops the shot instead of leaving it up to the user. Many automatic espresso machines even allow the user to customize the exact amount of water used in each shot and program the machine to use that much every time. 

“The pros and cons are almost exactly the same as for semi-autos, with just the added pro of the automatic stopping the shot for you,” Kasperowcz says. That extra bit of automation comes at a price, as flow meters tend to be expensive additions and, on the lower end, are often inaccurate. 

Among our favorite automatic machines is the Breville Barista Touch Impress. In other reviews, we’ve listed this machine as semi-automatic, but it can utilize both semi-automatic and automatic brewing methods. The Touch Impress comes with a touch screen that walks the user through the entire brewing process, times how long shots take to pull, and tells you whether you need to adjust the grind coarser or finer based on brew time. Through our testing, we found that the flow meter wasn’t the most accurate, but worked well enough, and the touch screen made whipping up a latte straightforward.

Manual

Two glasses with espresso on a grey tray
Serious Eats / Nick Simpson

The most affordable and simple style is the manual espresso machine. Instead of having a built-in boiler, they generate the pressure necessary to brew espresso with a lever that’s pulled by the user. The main attraction with lever machines as they are sometimes called, is direct access to every brewing variable and their more hands-on, retro approach to espresso. In fact, the term “pulling a shot” comes from the act of pulling the lever on an automatic machine to make espresso.

They’re not as easy to use as a machine that works at the push of a button, but manual machines have their perks. They range from pricey, high-end devices like La Pavoni to popular, affordable models like the Flair Classic. Many models of manual espresso machines don’t require electricity, which makes them perfect for travel or camping.

“The manual doesn’t really provide any upside over semi-automatic machines in terms of espresso quality,” Kasperowicz explains “It’s not like the learning curve is steep but when you get it right it’s better than using super-automatics.”

Why We’re The Experts

  • Dylan Ettinger is a Serious Eats contributor who specializes in coffee, spirits, cocktails, and barware. With over a decade of experience in the specialty coffee industry, he has spent the last four years testing and reviewing coffee grinders, espresso machines, pour-over cones, and other home coffee appliances for a variety of publications.
  • For this piece, he combined his experience in the coffee industry with that of Maciej Kasperowicz, Trade Coffee’s director of coffee and certified Q Grader, to better understand the nuances and differences between different types of home espresso machines.

Dry, Shaken, Stirred: We Talked to Experts to Find the Best Bar Carts

We reached out to bartenders and bar owners (and also asked Serious Eats staffers) what they look for in a bar cart and what their top picks are.

Two bar carts against a grid background.
Serious Eats / Kevin Liang

Building a home bar can be a bit of an undertaking. After acquiring all of the necessary tools, proper glassware, and bottles of liquor, things can, well, start to feel crowded. And of course, the deeper one gets into the world of spirits and mixology, the more it becomes clear that collecting bottles is a Sisyphean task. For organizing cocktail clutter, a bar cart is an obvious solution.

Bar carts can serve a multitude of purposes. Their primary function is to help home bartenders keep their supplies and tools stowed and organized. But they also serve an aesthetic purpose as a piece of mobile home decor and a way to display glassware and bottles. Many home mixologists even use the top shelf of their carts as a workspace to whip up cocktails. Of course, bar carts can be a bit of an investment, so whether you just need a stylish way to display your bottles or a portable bar top, you want to make the right choice when shopping. To find the best bar carts, we talked to a few bar industry insiders for their recommendations.

The Criteria: What to Look for in a Bar Cart

Numerous liquor bottles on the top shelf of a bar cart.
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Choosing a bar cart that’s right for you presents a unique challenge. Functionality is naturally the first concern, but it’s also a piece of furniture, so aesthetics are worth considering, too. There is no one-size-fits-all bar cart on the market. “The most important thing is finding a bar cart that fills your style and your needs,” says Noel Savoy, lead bartender at Spring Place in Beverly Hills. “Evaluate your collection and what you'd like to display before buying a bar cart.” There are, however, particular design nuances that affect how useful a bar cart is.

  • Size: When selecting a cart, make sure it will be able to adequately hold your desired amount of bottles, bar tools, and glassware. And you should plan for some growth. “Never go for a small cart. You’d be surprised how quickly they fill up and begin to look cluttered,” says Ryan Bailey, partner at Kato in Los Angeles. “The perfect size should be able to hold eight to 10 bottles, at least four to six glasses, an ice bucket, and all your barware.”
  • Bar top: Beyond storage, bar carts are often used as a portable bar top to mix drinks when guests visit. When selecting a cart, make sure that the top shelf has enough space to adequately hold a few bottles, and the necessary bar tools and give you enough space to shake a daiquiri or stir up a martini.
  • Prioritize mobility: Mobility is an often-overlooked, but crucial function in bar carts. Carts with wheels make it so home bartenders can easily move the cart to wherever guests need to be entertained. When selecting a cart, opt for large, sturdy wheels. Avoid small, flimsy wheels if possible. “They’ll break and a non-moveable cart is way less functional,” Bailey says.
  • Style: Ultimately design aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, but our experts recommend a sleek minimal design that prioritizes the bottles on display. “I prefer bar carts with simple lines so that the items on your cart can shine,” Savoy says. With distillers producing great liquors packaged in gorgeous bottles that really stand out, sleek, simple bar carts are inviting.”

Bar Cart Recommendations

a bar cart with gear and bottles of liquor on it
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Shopping for bar carts can get a bit overwhelming. There are many options ranging from simple and affordable to bespoke and design-focused and just as many vendors that sell them. To help us navigate the world of bar carts, we asked our bartending experts (as well as a couple of Serious Eats staffers) for their favorites. Here’s what they recommend.

The Hugo’s angular metal frame provides a modern-looking twist on the traditional bar cart. The Hugo Metal Bar Cart from Pottery Barn is incredibly functional. It has three shelves, so there’s plenty of space for your collection of bottles, glassware, and accessories. This cart is super sleek and can go with almost any type of home decor and works well for those who like to switch up their interior design regularly.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 38 x 29 x 17 inches
  • Materials: Steel, glass
  • Shelves: 3

“I’ve had this bar cart for years and have been immensely pleased with it,” says senior commerce editor Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm. “It has two wide, spacious shelves (truly, I’ve never run out of room), wheels, a handle, and an overall pleasing look to it that matches my home’s decor. With a little wood cleaner, the bar cart still looks as good as new.”

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 32.4 x 19.9 x 32 inches
  • Materials: Wood, brass
  • Shelves: 2
A two-tier wooden bar cart with various liquors on its shelves.
Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

Bar carts can get a bit pricey. Thankfully there are still stylish and functional options on the more affordable side of the spectrum. This bar cart from Honey-Can-Do has an angular metal frame and two faux marble shelves that evoke a fun prohibition-era, Art Deco sensibility. It has a slightly smaller profile than many of our other recommendations, but at just under $100, it’s one of the best deals out there.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 34 x 24 x 15.9 inches
  • Materials: Metal, faux marble
  • Shelves: 2

This bar cart from West Elm brings a little extra glamor with mirrored surfaces and gold railings but it still maintains a simple silhouette. “This can bring a little extra sparkle while drawing a little extra attention to your collection,” says Savoy. “It reflects light in a beautiful way if you're just pouring yourself a glass of bourbon or entertaining a group.”

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 31.75 x 27.8 x 14 inches
  • Materials: Metal, mirrored glass
  • Shelves: 2

“This is a newer addition to my space, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite things I own,” Riddley says. “It has a flat top and comes with a tray for storing some bottles on top and six shelves for stashing drinks of all sorts. I keep bottled cocktails, seltzers, and wine in there. There are also two temperature zones (it can be set anywhere from 37ºF to 64º F and the fridge comes in three subtle, pretty hues.”

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 34.5 x 24 x 16 inches
  • Materials: Steel, glass
  • Shelves: 6
the Rocco drink fridge with some bottles of liquor on top of the fridge.
Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

The Rosario bar cart from All Modern has a minimal, modern design with rounded edges and sturdy metal construction. “I love the shape of this All Modern bar cart since most liquor bottles are round,” says Savoy. “It plays up the curves and complements them so well.” It also has three shelves for extra storage and at $196 it won’t break the bank.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 34.5 x 30 x 17 inches
  • Materials: Metal, glass
  • Shelves: 3

“I’ve had this IKEA bar cart/do-it-all-cart for six years, and it’s served its purpose well. Not only it is durable and practical (you can raise and lower the shelves to accommodate taller bottles), but it also has wheels, making it easy to roll over to your guests for tableside cocktail service (I’m being serious!),” says associate commerce editor Grace Kelly. “Plus, it comes in three colors (black, white, and gold) and has a timeless, clean aesthetic. Not to mention it’s only $40, so if you’re still deciding on a fancy bar cart to splurge on but need something to make do with in the meantime, this one is for you.”

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 13.75 x 17.75 x 30.75 inches
  • Materials: Steel
  • Shelves: 3
A utility cart with three shelves loaded with liquor bottles.
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Designed by a husband and wife team based out of Los Angeles, the Earl bar cart is customizable with multiple hand-cut finishes and metal details. “I love their cart because it's solid wood with hand-cut joinery,” Bailey says. “The craftsmanship is very noticeable with each detail.” It’s also large enough for making cocktails and showing off your favorite bottles. From a home decor perspective, it also works with multiple styles of furniture. 

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 30 x 36 x 16 inches
  • Materials: Wood, glass, metal
  • Shelves: 2

If maximum storage is what you’re looking for, the Empire Bar Cart has you covered. The extra shelving (there are four) keeps everything organized and clean. “It’s quite large, but perfect for those who have a bit more of a liquor collection,” Bailey says. It even has a hanging rack for glassware on the lower level for extra storage.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 36” H x 31”W x 17”D
  • Materials: Stainless steel
  • Shelves: 4

For those who are in the market for a high-end bar cart with impeccable design, look no further. Made from steel, this bar cart from Klein is the best of both worlds. It’s sturdy and well-built with gorgeous leather and milled wood. “This cart was originally designed to be in Auburn, a restaurant in Los Angeles, that won the James Beard award for best restaurant design,” says Bailey. Its timeless design should give it the flexibility to fit nicely into most homes.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 38 x 37 x 20 inches
  • Materials: Customizable metal, wood, leather
  • Shelves: 4

FAQs

Koriko Boston shakers on a bar cart with other gear and drink staples
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

How do you organize a bar cart? 

How you choose to organize your bar cart will be determined by how you intend to use it. If you intend to use your cart as a surface to make drinks, make sure to keep the top shelf mostly clear of bottles, glassware, and barware. That way you will have enough space for the necessary bottles and glassware to prepare garnishes and stir or shake a cocktail. For the rest of the cart, it’s best to assign a dedicated space for spirits, liqueurs, glasses, and bar tools.

Where can you buy a bar cart? 

Bar carts are readily available for online purchase as well as in many stores that sell home goods, kitchenware, and furniture. Considering that a bar cart needs to fit your needs both in form and function, it might be best to shop around in person to make sure the cart you choose fits the space intended for it.

What are the must-have liquors for a bar cart?

Ultimately, the choice of bottles that wind up on your bar cart is up to you. If the goal is to entertain and mix up a handful of cocktails, it’s important to keep a bottle of each major category of spirit stocked. A good starting point is to have one bottle each of gin, vodka, tequila, scotch whisky, bourbon whiskey, an unaged rum, and a barrel-aged rum. Many cocktail recipes call for liqueurs as well, so stocking commonly used ones like Campari, Chartreuse, Aperol, and an orange liqueur like Grand Marnier or Cointreau will dramatically increase the number of cocktails you can mix up.

Why We’re the Experts

  • Dylan Ettinger is a freelance writer who specializes in coffee and drinks coverage. 
  • For this story, he spoke to Noel Savoy (lead bartender at Spring Place in Beverly Hills) and Ryan Bailey (partner at Kato in Los Angeles).

When Drinking Whiskey, It’s (Sometimes!) Okay to Add a Little Water

Whiskey droppers dilute spirits just a little—enough that they can actually improve your tasting experience.

a bottle of Oban whisky on a blue surface with a whisky glass beside it
Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

In my line of work, I get to taste a ton of different whisk(e)ys. Whether I’m sipping a sample at home, in a guided tasting with a master blender in Ireland, or drinking straight from the barrel in a rickhouse in Kentucky, one thing remains constant: I’m always trying to experience each whisky in its totality. That means I’m carefully and thoughtfully taking in the color, viscosity, and aroma and how the whiskey tastes and finishes on the palate. 

Distilled spirits are often densely packed with complex tastes and smells, which means it can be difficult to pick up on everything that’s going on. To help, many whiskey experts recommend a water dropper. Adding a few drops of water is said to “open up” a whiskey and make the aromatic and flavor compounds easier to discern. All this to say: If you’re serious about whiskey, you should have a dropper. Below, we’ll go more into why. 

Proof, Dilution, and Flavor

Whiskey, or any distilled spirit, is a mixture of alcohol (specifically ethanol), water, and various other flavoring compounds. Proof and ABV (alcohol by volume) are the measures of the ratio of alcohol to water in any given bottle. The proof of a spirit is calculated by doubling the ABV percentage. For example, a bourbon whiskey that’s bottled at 100 proof, has 50% ABV, meaning the bottle is about 50% alcohol and 50% water. 

Distillers often “proof down” or dilute spirits with water a few times during the production cycle. When a spirit is diluted with water, the balance of alcohol and water changes, and the overall flavor profile changes with it. Distillers carefully measure dilution in order to ensure the whiskey smells and tastes exactly how they want to present it when bottled. In the case of bourbon whiskey, it legally can be distilled up to 160 proof, which is very high. It then is sometimes diluted before being put into barrels for aging. After aging, it’s usually proofed down again to no lower than 80 proof or 40% ABV. 

Assessing Spirits

five boxes of whisky on a blue surface
Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

Although the distillers put a lot of thought and care into the proof they bottle their whiskey at, some extra dilution can help when nosing and tasting different whiskeys. That’s where whiskey droppers come into the equation. They allow the drinker to cautiously add small amounts of water without accidentally overdiluting.

Adding a bit of water dampens the “burn” of the ethanol, allowing all of the other flavoring compounds to come to the forefront and it becomes easier to identify the different flavor notes. Because of this, adding a few drops of water to a whiskey is often said to open up its aroma and flavor. With some whiskeys, usually those bottled around 80 proof, adding water can completely ruin a spirit by overdiluting it. When this happens, all of the desirable flavors and aromas become less prominent and the whiskey tastes flat or deflated. 

This is why most experts recommend initially trying a spirit neat, meaning without ice or any mixers. After closely paying attention to the aroma and flavor of the spirit, it’s common to add a few drops of water and pay close attention to how the flavors and aromas change. Remember, you can always add more water to a whiskey, but you can’t take any out.

Which Dropper Should You Buy?

A person using a whisky pipette to dilute whisky in a glass
Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

There are two styles of whiskey droppers that are commonly used in tastings: the glass pipette and rubber dropper bottle. Both styles essentially work the same way but vary in materials and appearance.

Glass pipettes are a simple and elegant way of delivering drops of water to your whiskey. Pipettes are thin glass tubes that allow the user to capture water and drop it into the whiskey. Yes, just like you used in chemistry class. To use, simply dip the pipette into a glass of water, and place your finger over the hole at the end of the pipette to hold the water inside. Then hold it over the glass of whiskey and remove your finger and the water will drop into the glass. We recommend The Glencairn glass pipette. It’s affordable, easy to use, and it matches the Glencairn glass that’s standard in whiskey tastings.

Most glass pipettes won’t break the bank, but budget-conscious drinkers might opt for a standard set of dropper bottles. They may not be as sleek or stylish as the Glencairn glass pipette, but they definitely do the job.

FAQs

How do you use a whiskey dropper?

Using a whiskey dropper is very straightforward. First, have your whiskey poured into a glass for tasting. Then use your dropper to add two to three drops of clean water to the whiskey. Gently swirl the glass to integrate the water into the whiskey and then taste. Feel free to add more water after that if necessary.

What kind of water should I drop into my whiskey?

Water that is high in mineral content or has other impurities might change the taste of the whiskey in unexpected and possibly unpleasant ways. To ensure that the integrity of the whiskey remains the same, use heavily filtered or distilled water.

Why We're the Experts

  • Dylan Ettinger is a contributor with more than a decade of experience working in the specialty coffee industry. He also specializes in writing about cocktails and the spirit industry.
  • Dylan has written our reviews on whiskey glasses, Boston shakers, and more.

We Tested Whiskey Glasses to Find the Best Ones for Single Pours and Mixed Drinks

We tested 13 whiskey glasses—evaluating how easy they were to drink from and clean and how well they did with single pours and mixed drinks.

numerous rocks glasses with whiskey in them on a kitchen countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

There is no scene in the world of drinking as iconic as watching someone order a whiskey—neat.  The bartender reaches below the counter, pulls out a stout cylindrical glass, sets it on the bartop right in front of a thirsty customer, and proceeds to pour a few ounces of bourbon or scotch. It’s an enduring image that has been depicted countless times in movies and television.

At the center of that scene is the rocks glass. Also referred to as a whiskey glass, an old-fashioned glass, a tumbler, or a lowball, this simple and versatile piece of glassware is a must-have for any aspiring home mixologist or spirits enthusiast. “They’re kind of a straight-forward everything glass,” says Jason Valdez, General Manager at Los Angeles whiskey and cocktail bar Wolf & Crane. Beyond neat pours of whisky, rocks glasses are used to serve a plethora of both classic and modern cocktails (like the Penicillin). And they aren’t exclusive to whiskey either—they’re great for serving whatever spirit you prefer.

For such a simple design, the market is flooded with an overwhelming selection of different rocks glasses—a quick Amazon search returns over 3,000 results. After getting some advice from Valdez, we rigorously tested 13 of the most popular and highly regarded sets of glasses to find out which were the best. After a few dozen pours of whiskey, here’s what we found.

The Winners, at a Glance

These Dorset rocks glasses were compact, sturdy, and just the right size for enjoying a typical two-ounce pour.

The stout design and wide mouth make these rocks glasses from Reidel ideal for enjoying a pour of whiskey on a big chunk of ice. Their capacity (13 ounces) also allows for serving cocktails like the old fashioned and negroni.

When it comes to serving a variety of cocktails, capacity is key. These 13-ounce double old-fashioned glasses from Spiegelau have the size and design ideal for building an old-fashioned right in the glass or for any drink served on the rocks.

The Tests

whiskey being poured in a rocks glass
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez
  • Size and Capacity Test: We measured the height and radius as well as the weight of each glass. When handling the glasses, we evaluated weight distribution and balance. We also noted the stated capacity of each glass and how well single pours (neat and on the rocks) and cocktails fit in each glass.
  • Design Test: When assessing each whiskey glass, we noted any design choices that may affect usability or desirability. Many glasses have engravings and other ornamental designs or heavily weighted bottoms. Although most design nuances are purely aesthetic, some can affect the usability of a glass.
  • Neat Pour Test: Using each glass, we sipped a 2-ounce pour of whiskey served neat. With each glass, we evaluated design features like the rim, weight of the glass, grip, and overall comfort of drinking from it.
  • On the Rocks Test: In each glass, we poured two ounces of whiskey over a single, large ice cube. While sipping, we noted how well the ice and whiskey fit in the glass, if the glass was able to keep the drink sufficiently cool, and if any design characteristics affected usability.
  • Old-Fashioned Test: With the best-performing glasses from the previous tests, we made an old-fashioned cocktail in each one. For each old-fashioned, we built the cocktail in the glass, meaning we mixed all of the ingredients with ice in the glass the drink was served in. For this test, we noted how easy it was to make and stir each cocktail and if there were any issues with the capacity.
  • Cleaning Tests: After each test, we hand-washed every glass with dish soap and water and then dried and polished it with a dish towel. We evaluated how easy each glass was to clean and if any design features made cleaning difficult.

What We Learned

Minor Design Differences Impacted Performance

a rocks glass on a kitchen scale
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Part of what makes rocks glasses such a versatile and useful piece of glassware is their simplicity. There aren’t many ways to improve upon or change the design without making it a different type of glass entirely. Because of this, there wasn't a ton of variation between the glasses, though there were minor design nuances (mainly size and shape) that affected performance and what role each glass was best suited for. Weight and weight distribution also played a role in how pleasant each style of glass was to use. For standard rocks glasses, the sweet spot was around nine to 11 ounces and for double old-fashioned glasses, we preferred a weight of around 12 to 14 ounces.

What Size Rocks Glass Was Best? 

two size rocks glasses beside one another
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

It’s important to consider what you intend to use the glasses for before purchasing a set. Smaller rocks glasses (around the 6- to 7-ounce range) put our noses closer to the spirit, making it easier to enjoy its aroma. But smaller glasses don’t usually have the capacity for full-sized cocktails. The larger 10- to 14-ounce double old-fashioned glass can accommodate the volume of a plethora of cocktails, but standard 2-ounce neat pours were dwarfed by the higher walls, and the aroma was harder to discern.

Durability and Longevity

an overhead look at the bottoms of a couple of rocks glasses
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When investing in any glassware, durability and longevity should be a consideration. Glass, in particular, can break easily and create a safety hazard when cleaning up. To avoid chipping, cracking, or shattering, thicker glass is the way to go. Thin glassware needs to be handled with more care when using and cleaning.

Thick glass has an added bonus if you’re serving a drink on the rocks. “The thicker the glass is, the more slowly your drink will dilute,” Valdez says. Thicker walls also help to balance out the weight of rocks glasses with thicker bases. However, if the glass is too thick, it can feel cumbersome and clunky. Essentially, you want glassware that strikes a balance—not too thick nor too delicate.

Cylindrical vs. Tapered Glasses

a collection of whiskey glasses on a kitchen countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The shape of the whiskey glass can affect both functionality and appearance. Cylindrical glasses with straight vertical walls performed best in our rocks and the old-fashioned tests. When building a cocktail in the glass, straight walls help facilitate an even rate of stirring which allows for more control over chilling and dilution. When serving whiskey on a large block of ice, we found that glasses with tapered sides and wider bases made the drink look a bit awkward and unbalanced as well, but non-standard shapes work just fine with neat pours given they aren’t too large.

The Criteria: What to Look for in Whiskey Glasses

two whiskey glasses on a kitchen countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Our favorite whiskey glasses all hit on the same criteria. First, the best glasses were sturdy and balanced. Thicker glass walls and a thick base ensure that the glass won’t chip or break as easily, but glass walls that were too thick felt clunky. Glasses with heavier bases stood up well to muddling ingredients and made the glass more difficult to tip over. Our favorite glasses also had straight sides that were at an approximate 90-degree angle from the base. While certain designs with angled or curved sides can be attractive with neat pours, they aren’t the most practical when adding ice or mixing. We also enjoyed drinking from glasses that had an even weight distribution and felt balanced in the hand.

The Best Whiskey Glasses

What we liked: The Dorset Single Old Fashioned glasses were the best choice for enjoying a neat pour of whiskey. It has a simple and elegant cylindrical design that does a great job of showcasing the liquid it holds. The size and capacity make it so that a standard 2-ounce pour fills about one-third of the glass. The thick base and solid walls feel balanced and sturdy and the glass feels comfortable and nice in the hand. 

What we didn’t like: The biggest downside with the Dorset glasses is the price. At about $120 for a set of four, it’s one of the more expensive sets we tested. Although this glass works perfectly for neat pours, its capacity and width make for a tight fit when it comes to cocktails and any drinks with ice.

Price at time of publish: $120 ($30 per glass).

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 3.5 inches high; 3 inches in diameter
  • Capacity: 7 ounces
  • Material: Lead-free crystal
  • Care instructions: Hand wash
a whiskey glass with whiskey in it with a bottle of whiskey behind it
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

What we like: Reidel is an Austrian glassmaker that is renowned for their elegant wine glasses. When it comes to their line of cocktail glasses, they maintain the same standard of quality. The Reidel Rocks Glass is a simple and classy glass that’s perfect for a pour of whiskey on the rocks. The glass is almost as wide as it is tall, which makes it ideal for a single large cube or sphere of ice. The 10-ounce capacity also means it can easily fit a lower-volume cocktail served with ice like the old-fashioned or negroni. It feels sturdy and balanced and it is not easily tipped over.

What we didn’t like: The only downside here is the capacity. Though the shape and 10-ounce capacity is perfect for sipping a spirit on the rocks, it doesn’t quite have the same versatility in serving higher-volume cocktails that you find in a double old-fashioned glass.

Price at time of publish: $30.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 3.27 inches high; 3.23 inches in diameter
  • Capacity: 10 ounces
  • Material: Glass
  • Care instructions: Dishwasher safe
two whiskey glasses on a kitchen countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

What we liked: If you are looking for a set of whiskey glasses for cocktails, you can’t do much better than these double old-fashioned glasses from German glassmakers Spiegelau. With a large, 13-ounce capacity, sturdy base, and thick, straight sides, these glasses hit the mark on every possible criterion. The etchings on the side are stylish, minimal, and modern, which works for multiple styles of cocktails. The large capacity gives this glass even more versatility, allowing home mixologists to serve drinks over pebble ice on the rocks. When testing, we even made a few mai tais with this glass just to verify its versatility (and because they’re delicious).

What we didn’t like: This double old-fashioned glass works great for cocktails that utilize various styles of ice, but its size isn’t ideal for the standard 2-ounce neat pour. Some drinkers may also prefer a more classic aesthetic with traditional etchings instead of the minimalist design of the Spiegelau glasses.

Price at time of publish: $40.

Key Specs

  • Dimensions: 4 inches high; 2.8 inches in diameter 
  • Capacity: 13 ounces
  • Material: Glass
  • Care instructions: Dishwasher safe
two rocks glasses beside each other on a countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The Competition

  • MacLean Double Old-Fashioned Glasses: These double old-fashioned glasses were well-built, but the weight distribution felt a bit off and unbalanced.
  • Riedel Spey Double Old-Fashioned Glasses: This set from Reidel was the runner-up for our top pick for cocktails. We ultimately chose the Spiegelau because it was slightly wider and had a more minimal design, but you likely won’t be disappointed with these.
  • Williams Sonoma Reserve Old Fashioned Glasses: These stylish glasses work great when serving a spirit neat, but the rounded shape isn’t the best for accommodating a large piece of ice or serving a cocktail.
  • Estelle Hand-Blown Colored Rocks Glasses: We found these thick-based glasses to be too heavy and a bit cumbersome, though well-made. The tinted glass also affects the color of the spirit or drink in the glass, which could potentially be discouraging.
  • Kanars Old-Fashioned Whiskey Glasses: These glasses are very affordable, but we found them to be a bit too thick and clunky with a lower-quality build.
  • Libbey Rocks Glasses: These low-profile and affordable glasses have a straightforward design and perform well, but with an 11-ounce capacity, it’s not quite as versatile as other double old-fashioned glasses and we preferred the lower profile of the Reidel rocks glass.
  • Zwiesel Glas Pure Double Old-Fashioned Set: These unique and stylish glasses work well with neat pours, but the rounded sides and wider base aren’t the most amenable for building a cocktail in the glass.
  •  Anchor Hocking Old-Fashioned Whiskey Glasses: For whiskey served over a rock or neat pours, these hefty glasses from Anchor Hocking will definitely do the trick. We just preferred the lower walls and slightly thinner glass of the Reidel glasses.
  • Godinger Dublin Double Old-Fashioned Glasses: Out of all of the rocks glasses we tested, this was the only set where it felt like the large and pronounced etchings impacted the drinking experience. 
  • Marquis by Waterford Double Old-Fashioned Set: These classic-style glasses were well made, but they were a bit more top-heavy than the other glasses in this style we tested.

FAQs

What is a rocks glass?

The rocks glass is a short, cylindrical glass that is also referred to as a tumbler, an old-fashioned glass, and a lowball glass. It’s commonly used both to serve spirits neat (without ice or mixers) or with ice and typically holds about six to eight ounces of liquid. 

What is a double old fashioned glass?

A double old-fashioned glass is a whiskey glass that has about double the capacity as the standard size. This size and style of glass is usually better suited for serving higher-volume cocktails or drinks that are served on a large block of ice. Double old-fashioned glasses usually have a capacity of 10 to 14 ounces.

Which cocktails can be served in a rocks glass?

The rocks glass is one of the most versatile pieces of glassware behind the bar. It’s best known for being the style of glass used for serving the old-fashioned cocktail, but it can also be used to serve other popular cocktails such as the negroni, margarita, and mai tai.

How do you smoke a glass for an old-fashioned? 

Smoking old-fashioned cocktails has become a popular way to add a bit of smoky aroma and flair to a timeless classic. To add a whiff of smoke to your drink, you’ll need a cocktail smoker. There are a few different styles available, so check out our guide to the best cocktail smokers to find out which are worth investing in.

Why We're the Experts

  • For this review, we tested 13 whiskey glasses—drinking spirits from them neat, over ice, and in a cocktail.
  • Dylan Ettinger is a contributor with more than a decade of experience working in the specialty coffee industry. He also specializes in writing about cocktails and the spirit industry.
  • For this review, we interviewed Jason Valdez, General Manager at Los Angeles whiskey and cocktail bar Wolf & Crane.

The Best Cocktail Shakers, According to Our (Shaken, Not Stirred) Tests

We rounded up our top picks for Boston and cobbler shakers, according to our in-depth tests.

Two hands holding and shaking a cocktail shaker
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Part of the fun of going out for cocktails is the theater of watching skilled bartenders shake up a drink. The clanking of ice against metal and the flash of stainless steel being brandished all contribute to the ambiance of the bar. But shaking a cocktail isn’t just about showing off: it’s an absolutely crucial step for mixing up many beloved libations. 

Whether you’re hosting a party or just want to shake up a margarita once in a while, every home mixologist needs a cocktail shaker. Choosing the perfect shaker is a bit of a daunting task as there are (literally) hundreds of shakers on the market.

There are two primary styles of cocktail shaker: the Boston shaker and the cobbler shaker. To help you find the best cocktail shaker, we tested both styles separately. Below, we've rounded up our top picks from each of these reviews.

The Winners, at a Glance

Why Do I Need a Cocktail Shaker?


Shaking cocktails is a crucial step in making proper drinks. The rule of thumb used by most bartenders is that any drink that contains fruit juice, dairy, or egg white needs to be shaken. This means that in order to make good margaritas, daiquiris, or whiskey sours at home, a cocktail shaker is a necessary tool.

Shaking a cocktail is done for a few important reasons. First and foremost, it fully mixes all of the ingredients of a drink into a homogenous liquid. Many ingredients used in mixology like spirits, liqueurs, syrups, and fruit juice vary in density, which means they need more than a simple stir to become fully integrated. The ice used when shaking a drink chills and dilutes the cocktail, which increases the overall volume of the cocktail while also reducing its alcohol content. Shaking also aerates the cocktail, which mellows some of the harsher flavors and improves the drink’s texture by adding a bit more body. Basically, some cocktails just won’t look or taste right if they aren’t shaken.

What's a Boston Shaker?

four boston shakers (made of different materials) on a grey countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The shaker most commonly used by professionals is the Boston shaker. These are comprised of two tins, one smaller than the other, that fit together to form an air-tight seal. Boston shakers are often preferred by professional bartenders due to their simplicity and size. The two tins are easy to clean and use, and they hold enough volume to make multiple servings of the same drink. It’s also easy to separate the tins once the cocktail is ready—just give them a solid whack. Boston shakers do require the use of a Hawthorne strainer in order to properly separate the ice and any other solids from the finished cocktail. There’s also a bit more of a learning curve with them; it can take some practice to figure out exactly how to get it to seal, and then unseal properly, but once mastered, this style of shaker is an invaluable tool behind the bar.

What Should You Look for in a Good Boston Shaker?

A video of a person shaking a cocktail shaker
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

After testing 12 Boston shakers, our top pick was the Modern Mixologist shaker set. When assessing a Boston shaker, the most important factors to consider are how well it seals and the build quality. The Modern Mixologist shaker excelled in both criteria. Across multiple cocktail tests, the shaker was able to maintain its seal without any leakage. It also boasted a sleek design without any welded seams, meaning the Modern Mixologist has little chance of breaking over time.

For a slightly more affordable option, we recommend the Piña Commercial Boston Tin Set. It’s about $5 to $10 cheaper than most of the other Boston shaker sets we tested but outperformed some of the higher-end shakers. Throughout our testing, the Piña shaker set maintained its seal just as well as our top pick from Modern Mixologist. Its only downside: the weights on each tin are welded on, which means there’s potential for them to fall off after prolonged, heavy use.

But What About Cobbler Shakers?

a cocktail being poured in a coupe glass from a cobbler shaker
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Cobbler shakers are the second most common style. They differ from Boston shakers in that they have a built-in strainer and consist of three parts: a shaker tin, a lid with a built-in strainer, and a cap that fits over the strainer to prevent any spills when shaking. The biggest upside with cobbler shakers is the built-in strainer. There’s no need for another bar tool, which makes this style attractive to home mixologists and beginners. However, the addition of a strainer does complicate the design. The cap is small enough to be easily lost, and cobbler shakers are notorious for getting stuck—sometimes permanently. The strainers in cobbler shakers also tend to have wider openings that sometimes allow for bits of muddled herbs, fruit, or shards of ice to pass through. 

Should you opt for a cobbler shaker, we recommend the Usagi cobbler shaker from Cocktail Kingdom. In our tests, we found it to be sleek, stylish, and easy to use. It had a fairly large capacity and made up to three cocktails at a time. Basically, the Usagi delivered on every major criterion that makes a good cobbler shaker. However, for a budget-friendly option, OXO's our top choice.

Should You Buy a Boston or Cobbler Shaker? 

two cocktail shakers on a wooden surface
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

The “best” cocktail shaker really depends on your needs. For novice home bartenders, the cobbler shaker is a great introductory tool. The built-in strainer definitely helps keep things simple and saves a little time and effort when shopping for bar tools. Those who are a bit more serious about mixology will probably find more utility in the Boston-style shakers. There’s a bit more of a learning curve when figuring out how to seal and unseal the tins, but it’s a tried and true tool. 

What we liked: The Modern Mixologist Boston Shaker was easy to use and formed a perfect seal throughout all of our testing. It had a nice heft and balanced to it and lacked any welded seams (unlike many of the shakers we tested), which means there's less of a likelihood of any pieces falling off with time. We also thought it was easy to break the seal and affix a Hawthorne strainer to its opening.

What we didn't like: It's slightly shorter than other shakers and thus holds a few ounces less.

Price at time of publish: $33.

Key Specs

  • Materials: Stainless steel
  • Capacity: 26- and 18 3/4-ounce tins
  • Dishwasher-safe: Yes
  • Good to know: A mixing glass can be purchased separately
The Modern Mixologist tins on a grey countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

What we liked: For a more affordable option, we suggest the Piña Boston shaker. The build quality isn’t quite up to par with the Modern Mixologist, but it sealed up just as well in our tests. It also features a flared, stable base and we were able to unseal them easily. Plus, $25 for two tins makes this shaker an easy buy.

What we didn't like: The welded base isn't our favorite from a longevity perspective and some folks may find the flared base obtrusive during shaking.

Price at time of publish: $25.

Key Specs

  • Materials: Stainless steel
  • Capacity: 28- and 18-ounce tins
  • Dishwasher-safe: Yes
  • Good to know: You can choose between a brushed or polished finish
The Pina Shakers on a grey countertop
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

What we liked: We chose the Usagi cobbler shaker as our top pick for its sleek, stainless steel construction. It also has a large capacity, which is helpful for making multiple drinks at once (the manufacturer says two, though we found it fit three fine). It was well-insulated, too, delivering a nicely chilled drink while keeping our hands from getting frosty.

What we didn't like: Well, it's expensive. It's also heavier than other cobbler shakers.

Price at time of publish: $39.

Key Specs

  • Materials: Stainless steel
  • Capacity: 28 ounces
  • Dishwasher-safe: Yes
  • Good to know: Stated two drink capacity, though we found three fit fine
a stainless steel cocktail shaker against a white background
Serious Eats / Kate Dingwall

What we liked: With a sleek design, jigger cap, and nice capacity (enough for about two drinks), we think the OXO is a great, moderately priced ($23) option. In fact, as we said in our cobbler shakers review, "It's the best shaker we found for its price."

What we didn't like: While the built-in jigger is appealing (especially for those just starting their cocktail-making journey), its slanted sides made it very hard to pour from.

Price at time of publish: $23.

Key Specs

  • Materials: Stainless steel
  • Capacity: 24 ounces
  • Dishwasher-safe: Yes
  • Good to know: Jigger cap, though we recommend buying a separate jigger
a stainless steel cobbler shaker with a silicone cap on a white surface and against a white background
Serious Eats / Kate Dingwall

FAQs

How do you use a cocktail shaker?

To use a cocktail shaker, simply add all of the ingredients for a cocktail into one of the tins. Then add ice, seal the shaker, and shake vigorously. Once the cocktail is properly mixed and chilled, strain the liquid into a glass and serve. 

How long do you shake a cocktail? 

A typical drink should be shaken for about 10 to 15 seconds. Some cocktails that include egg white or dairy may require extra shaking time or a dry shake (shaking without ice) to fully mix and emulsify the ingredients.

What do you use if you don’t have a cocktail shaker?

If you don’t have access to a cocktail shaker but want to mix up a drink, a mason jar or a shaker bottle (like the kind used for protein drinks) should work in a pinch.

How do you open a stuck cocktail shaker?

Cocktail shakers seal when the internal temperature drops and creates a vacuum inside the shaker tins. With a Boston shaker, you can release the seal by smacking the side of the tins where the two meet. There should be one side where there’s a bit more space between the tins (that’s where you should smack). With a cobbler shaker, your best bet is to let the cocktail and tin come up to room temperature and try opening it again.