To Stir or to Shake (and why to do either at all)

Posted on Oct 26, 2015


To Stir or to Shake

A handful of drinks–the Old Fashioned, for instance–get made right in the glass you’ll drink it from. You’ve probably noticed, though, that most of them get shaken or stirred in some other container and then strained into the serving glass. It might be worth spending a little time exploring why we do that, and how to do it well.

chilled magazine(photo cred: chilled magazine)

Why do we shake and stir?

We shake and stir our cocktails for two reasons: to chill them and to water them down.

I don’t know who discovered or how they discovered that it works perfectly well for the Old Fashioned, the Gin and Tonic, and the Whiskey and Soda to get gradually cooler and more watery over the course of the drink. Whoever it was, and however they discovered it, they seem to have gotten it right. However, for most cocktails, we like them a little watered down and properly chilled when we take our fist sip; and with many of them, we don’t like them to get any more watery after that.

So, we stir or shake in ice until we get a cocktail just the right amount of chilled and watered, and then get rid of the remaining ice.

Should you shake or stir?

You should stir. 

pheonix new times(photo cred: phoenix new times)

Or, to put it more accurately, stirring is the default path. Stirring is like Mama Bear’s porridge: just right. It does the job of chilling and watering your cocktail, no more and no less. Stirring gently until about half the volume of the ice has melted into the cocktail–I usually go for about 40 rotations–gets your cocktail where you want it to be.

Unless there’s a specific reason to shake.

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(photo cred: la times)

Stirring might be just right for chilling and watering, but sometimes we want something a bit more out of the icing of our cocktail. There are basically three situations in which the more violent agitation that comes from shaking your cocktail helps rather than hurting:

  1. When juice is involved: if your cocktail involves an ounce or less of lemon or lime, stir it still. But if juice vies with or exceeds your base spirit in volume, shake your cocktail. It helps make sure that the juice gets fully mixed into the cocktail instead of remaining somewhat separate from the alcohol, and we kind of like our juicy cocktails a little slushy;
  2. When dairy is involved: when there’s any dairy at all in your cocktail, even more than with juice you want to shake to make sure that the dairy and the alcohol are thoroughly mixed. Nothing’s worse than a somewhat curdy White Russian;
  3. When egg whites are involved: some drinks call for egg whites to add a bit of froth on the top of the cocktail. You can’t get the froth without shaking.

When you run into one of these situations, shake the drink hard in a shaker until holding the shaker gets uncomfortably cold, about 20 seconds.

In summary, stir when the drink is all liquor, shake when there’s a non-liquor element (oh, and if that non-liquor element is a carbonated soft drink, for God’s sake don’t shake–it’ll explode–but don’t stir it in either; float it on the top.)

 

What equipment should you use?

There are three bar tool choices for stirring and shaking:

  • the mixing glass: basically just a big glass for building and stirring your cocktail;
  • the standard shaker: a metal container with a strainer lid and a cap, for shaking;
  • the Boston shaker: a combination of the bottom of a standard shaker and a mixing glass, for shaking.

Ask most professional bartenders, and they’ll recommend the Boston shaker. Ask any home bartender, and they’ll tell you that they actually use the standard shaker. There must be some reason why the professionals all use and recommend the Boston shaker; they spend far more time mixing than any of us home bartenders do and wouldn’t do it the way they do without a reason. Nonetheless, I use a standard shaker. I find it’s easier to make a tight seal when I’m shaking, and having the strainer right there on the lid is quite convenient. In fact, I even use the standard shaker instead of the mixing glass when I’m stirring–once again because just throwing that lid on to strain is so easy.

Bartender Neil Espinosa pours a Manhattan as one of Stark's Steakhouse's winter cocktails in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

(photo cred: sonoma magazine)

3 Comments

  1. And when not to shake or stir… building a layered cocktail with different densities, for example…

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  2. Is there something about shaking a drink it’s when it’s gin-based but not vodka based or did I dream that?

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    • There’s an old rule of thumb about shaking vodka and stirring gin, so that you don’t ‘bruise the gin.’ There’s a lot of controversy over what exactly is meant by ‘bruising’ and whether or not it actually happens. I think the advice to shake vodka and to stir gin has more to do with what we tend to mix with the two. Gin drinks often involve more subtle flavors (including in the gin itself) that get masked when the drink is more watery and aerated, as shaking will do. Vodka more often gets mixed with things like juice or cream, the things we mention above, when that colder, more watery, more bubbly effect from shaking is welcome.

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