When to Shake or Stir Cocktails
The most common mixology question I hear is, “How do you know to shake or stir a cocktail?” As you get started in mixology and improve your cocktail craft, you need to know how to properly chill your cocktails. I got this wrong for years, after some bad advice from Mr. Bond. Fortunately, there are three simple rules that explain everything about shaking and stirring cocktails. Internalize them, and you’ll never go wrong.
Follow these three rules and you will always know when to shake or stir a cocktail:
- Stir cocktails that only contain spirits, bitters, or syrups.
- Shake cocktails that contain juice, cream, or egg.
- Add carbonated ingredients after any shaking or stirring.
Most of you can stop reading now and go make a drink.
For the true crafters who want to understand the science, exceptions, and techniques, here is The Complete Guide to Shaking and Stirring Cocktails.
Why to Shake or Stir Cocktails
Most cocktails are served cold, and for many cocktails the colder the better. Agitating the cocktail with ice is the usual way to chill it.
But chilling is not the only thing that happens in the shaker or mixing glass.
Both the temperature and the degree of dilution of a cocktail are key contributors to the enjoyment of a cocktail, so ensuring that they are managed correctly is a hugely important part of the bartender’s craft.Tristan Stephenson, The Curious Bartender Volume 1: The artistry and alchemy of creating the perfect cocktail
When shaking or stirring a cocktail, you’re controlling three interconnected properties of the final drink: temperature, dilution, and aeration. Whether you shake or stir, how long you do it, and the type of ice you use all impact these three properties.
Drinks are chilled when they come in contact with ice. Heat from the room-temperature drink melts the surface of the ice which cools the cocktail.
Stirring and shaking both speed up this heat exchange by increasing the rate at which all the molecules of the liquid touch the molecules of the ice. Shaking is a more aggressive process, so it chills the drink faster than stirring.
When the ice and liquids reach a temperature equilibrium, the cocktail won’t get any colder no matter how long you continue to shake or stir. The specific temperature at the equilibrium point depends on the makeup of your cocktail because different substances (water, juice, and alcohol) have different freezing points.
When the cocktail reaches this temperature, it’s time to stop shaking or stirring and pour the drink.
Dilution is the amount of water that enters your cocktail from the melting ice. The right amount of dilution takes the edge off the alcohol and makes the cocktail more enjoyable. Too much dilution weakens the flavor and the cocktail tastes watered-down.
When chilling a cocktail with ice, temperature and dilution go hand-in-hand. You cannot chill a cocktail without adding liquid water from the ice melt. This is an important nuance to understand: The colder your drink, the more diluted it will be.
This is true for shaking and stirring, which might surprise you. To get a cocktail to your desired temperature, there is no difference in dilution between shaking and stirring.
Once the cocktail has reached the desired temperature, you must stop shaking or stirring it. Continuing to stir or shake after the alcohol and other ingredients are fully chilled only introduces more dilution as the ice continues to melt from the warmth of your hands and the ambient temperature of the room.
(You can chill cocktails without diluting them using liquid nitrogen, dry ice, or a variety of other methods. This is exciting, but out of scope for this guide).
If both shaking and stirring can achieve the same temperatures, and dilution cannot be controlled separately, why does it matter if we shake or stir? The answer is aeration.
Aeration is the process of introducing tiny air bubbles into a drink to give it texture.
When you shake a cocktail, the ice and liquid thrashing around introduces tiny air bubbles into the liquid. These air bubbles create a light, airy texture on the tongue and enhance flavor perception.
Stirring a cocktail minimizes aeration, which is why we stir cocktails that only contain spirits. No one wants a frothy Martini, so following Rule #1, stir the Martini. Stir all spirits-only cocktails like the the Manhattan and the Boulevardier.
However, the Daiquiri has much better texture if you fill the sugary juice concoction with tiny air bubbles. Shake the Daiquiri as outlined in Rule #2.
How to Stir a Cocktail
To stir a cocktail, you need a mixing glass, a strainer, and a bar spoon.
The mixing glass could be a fancy crystal beaker, a pint glass, or even the bottom part of your shaker. You can make do with almost anything, but I prefer a dedicated mixing glass that isn’t tapered because it’s easier to stir.
Add your ingredients to the glass, and then add ice cubes and a small amount of cracked ice.
Stir by swirling the bar spoon around the outside of your mixing glass, keeping the bowl of the spoon pointed toward the center of the glass. The spoon will rotate in your fingers as the whole mixture swirls around the glass in a whirlpool motion.
Don’t swish back and forth or overly agitate the cocktail. Stirring should be an almost silent affair.
After 30-45 seconds, your cocktail should reach the desired temperature. Use your strainer and pour it into the serving glass.
How to Shake a Cocktail
To shake a cocktail, you need a shaker and a strainer.
There are three types of shakers: the Boston shaker, the Cobbler shaker, and the Parisian shaker. They all get the job done, but my preference is the Boston shaker.
Add the ingredients to the shaker, fill it entirely with ice cubes, and close the lid.
Shaking is more complicated than stirring, because of the physics involved. Don’t simply shake up and down, but shake in an arc by snapping your wrists as if to throw the shaker backwards over your shoulder. You want to bounce the contents around in the shaker like the ball in a pinball machine. This way maximizes aeration because the liquid travels a greater distance as it zig-zags around inside the shaker.
Shake for 15-20 seconds and strain into your serving glass.
Ice for Shaking and Stirring
To effectively control temperature, dilution, and aeration, you have to use the right ice. Both the type of ice, and the amount of ice are important.
Cubed ice is used in both shaking and stirring cocktails.
The ideal size of cubed ice for the home bar is 1-inch square cubes. You can buy silicone ice cube molds to produce them in bulk, and store them in plastic containers in the freezer.
You can also use the sliver-shaped ice that most home freezers produce. While the idea of keeping an endless stock of pre-made cubes on hand is romantic, it isn’t always practical for the home cocktail crafter.
You may want to invest in some larger ice molds to create cubes for serving drinks like the Old Fashioned. A single large ice cube that almost fills the glass enhances the visual appeal of the cocktail.
Cracked ice is created when you crack cubed ice. To speed the chilling of stirred cocktails, crack some of your ice cubes using the end of your bar spoon. Aim for 2-4 chunks of cracked ice from each ice cube.
In The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, Jeffrey Morgenthaler recommends a 3:1 ratio of cubed ice to cracked ice for stirring cocktails.
Adding cracked ice to the mixing glass reduces the amount of time you have to stir the cocktail without overly diluting it.
Crushed ice is not used in shaking or stirring, but reserved for serving certain cocktails. Never put crushed ice into your shaker.
Crushed ice has been broken into even smaller pieces than cracked ice. With the increased surface area, it melts quickly and chills cocktails rapidly.
While not used in shaking or stirring, crushed ice is the hallmark of many summery cocktails like the Mint Julep. Sipping the cocktail through a big scoop of evenly crushed ice is part of the experience.
When working with crushed ice, be mindful of the surface water. Because there are many tiny pieces, crushed ice has more surface area than the same amount of ice in other forms. This multitude of surfaces can introduce a surprising amount of liquid water into your cocktail, which dilutes it without additional chilling.
Working with Carbonation
Many drinks contain carbonated ingredients like club soda, tonic water, ginger beer, and sparkling wine or champagne.
The appeal of carbonated beverages is the effervescence – the bubbly sensation in the mouth. When you mix in non-carbonated liquids, like fruit juice and liquor, you naturally reduce the carbonation of the finished product. Therefore you want to preserve as much carbonation as possible through your technique.
There are three tips to remember to keep drinks carbonated as long as possible:
- Warm liquids go flat faster than cold ones. Keep your carbonated ingredients cold when you’re not using them.
- Ice provides many surface irregularities where carbonated liquids can reduce their carbon dioxide molecules in the form of bubbles. When you serve a carbonated drink on ice, understand that it will go flat more quickly than one served without ice.
- Shaking or agitating a carbonated liquid speeds the release of carbonation. Therefore never shake a carbonated liquid, and pour or stir it only enough to mix it with the other ingredients.
The recommended way to add a carbonated ingredient to a shaken cocktail is to shake the non-carbonated ingredients first, then add the carbonated ingredient to the shaker and strain into the glass. Pouring the cocktail will mix the ingredients.
When building a cocktail in a glass, like the Collins or Mojito, pour the carbonated ingredient in last so that the pouring action mixes the drink. You can swirl the drink gently with a bar spoon if you need to further blend the drink.
Dairy, as a general rule, is shaken. Because of the fat content in dairy, it retains the tiny air bubbles very well. Shaking creates the rich, creamy texture that makes dessert cocktails, like the Rumkin Spice Alexander and the Grasshopper, so delicious.
One of the most popular cocktails with dairy is the White Russian, which is a strange exception to this rule. The White Russian, popularized in US culture by the 1998 film The Big Lebowski, is usually served one of two ways. Either it is built in the glass and stirred, or the vodka and coffee liqueur are added to the glass with ice, and then the cream is shaken and floated on top.
Dry Shake when Working with Eggs
I’ll be honest, I don’t like eggs in my cocktails.
Eggs are an ingredient in many traditional cocktails, like the New York Sour, Gin Fizz, and the whole category of Flips. Egg whites give a foamy texture to a shaken drink, and whole eggs add a creamy body that is characteristic of the Flip.
Today, eggs have largely fallen out of favor in cocktails, likely due to the fear of salmonella. That said, I do still see them on cocktail menus from time to time, and I have a friend who loves foamy cocktails.
When making cocktails containing eggs, you should perform a “dry shake” to develop a thicker and more desirable foam.
A “dry shake” is simply a shake without ice. Shake the cocktail first without ice to whip up a good foam, and then shake again with ice to chill and dilute the drink.
When performing a dry shake with a Boston shaker, take extra care to get a good seal so you don’t sling eggs everywhere. The Boston shaker relies on cold temperatures to contract the metal and seal the two halves. Give it an extra whack to make sure it’s sealed before your dry shake.
Building Cocktails in the Glass
Some cocktails, like the Mojito, are not stirred or shaken – they are “built in the glass.” This means that the cocktail is assembled in the glass it is served in.
In the Mojito, for example, the first step is muddling the mint in the bottom of the glass. This releases the essential oils and fragrances that the drink requires, and you don’t want to lose any of them transferring the drink from a mixing vessel to the serving glass.
You can build an Old Fashioned in the glass if you were making a very traditional recipe using a sugar cube. You place the sugar cube in the glass, wet it with bitters and room-temperature water, and muddle it until dissolved. Then you add the whiskey and ice and stir gently.
Cocktails that involve floating one liquid on top of another, like the Dark ’N Stormy, are also built in the glass to keep the liquids from mixing.
Cocktails fascinate me because of the combination of science, craft, and art. In what other pastime can you apply the laws of thermodynamics while working with your hands to create beautiful things, all in the space of a few minutes?
If this seems like a lot to master, don’t be discouraged. There is pleasure in the journey, and every tiny improvement in your craft produces something wonderful that you can enjoy and share with others.
Begin by learning the 3 rules for shaking and stirring. Bookmark this guide and come back to it as you hone your skills. Cheers!