The Art of Mixing: Shaking, Stirring, and Building Cocktails
The ingredients used to make a cocktail shape the flavor profile, body, texture, and style of the drink. The method, or the way a drink is mixed, influences the way those ingredients are perceived. If you’ve ever had a Martini shaken instead of stirred, you understand the impact of how the way a cocktail is made can affect the final product.
What it really boils down to is water content, aeration, temperature, and agitation (WATA) as each of these elements subtly affect a cocktail’s flavor, and it’s during the mixing stage that these elements are introduced.
While we could definitely get into the nerdy nitty gritty of how each of those factors affect a cocktail’s flavor, that’s not what we’re going to focus on. Right now, we want to introduce the proper way to mix cocktails using each of these techniques, and when to shake, versus stir, and so on. Having a general overview of these concepts will ensure that every Old-Fashioned you build is perfectly tempered and diluted; every Daiquiri is frothy and balanced; and that every Martini is as silky and crisp as they should be. So, let’s get into it.
Shaking, while it may seem simple, is actually pretty nuanced. Cocktails are shaken when they include juices, citrus, egg white, or other ingredients that need a substantial amount of agitation and aeration to emulsify. The way you shake is important, but the quality of the ice you use is more significant.
The general rule is: if your ice is wet, shaped irregularly, and breaks apart quickly, then shake vigorously, but for a shorter period of time (5 to 7 seconds); if the ice is proportionate, dry, and clear—like ice made from commercial ice machines at bars—then a proper shake (7 to 12 seconds) is in order. If your cocktail is being served up, shake longer (i.e if it’s in the 7 to 12 second range, shake to 12); and if the cocktail is going down over ice, shake for the lesser amount of time.
The common shaking vessels are two mixing tins, as seen at most cocktail bars. The Boston Shaker (a pint glass and tin) also makes the occasional appearance, but it is better to have stainless steel for two reasons: it’s more effective, and steel doesn’t shatter. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a great place to start if you’ve never really thought about the details of shaking. Remember, “WATA.”
The goal of stirring is to introduce as little oxygen to the mix as possible in order to create a crisp, round, velvety cocktail. Stirring is typically employed for spirit-forward cocktails such as the Manhattan, Martini, Vieux Carre, Sazerac, and so on. If a cocktail only contains spirit, bitters, syrups or liqueurs, then you stir.
As is the case with shaking, the quality of the ice matters. More surface area (i.e smaller pieces of ice) equals a faster rate of dilution, which means you don’t have to stir as long. If you are stirring with larger pieces of hand-cut ice, you can stir for a longer period of time. The general rule is 35-45 rotations before the ideal water content is added, but this can very much vary. The key is as long as you have decent stirring technique, you’ll be golden.
To properly stir, place the spoon an inch or two into the ice, but not all the way to the bottom. Hold the spoon loosely held between the middle and ring fingers, while using your thumb as the anchor to help guide as you move the middle and ring fingers back and forth to stir. Make sure that the back of the spoon is always facing the inside of the mixing glass, and after a few stirs, little force will need to be applied because the momentum will make stirring easier. Never clink the ice or cause the spoon to lose contact with the side of the glass, and disturb the ice as a little as possible as you rotate it to prevent ice chips or to cause your drink to over dilute.
Built drinks are typically highballs, and other cocktails that include carbonation. To properly build a cocktail—let’s say it’s a highball for convenience’s sake—add ice to a highball glass. Then, pour over any non-carbonated ingredients (i.e base spirit, liqueur, syrup, etc.); give a light stir, then add more ice if needed. Add the carbonation, then lightly agitate by lifting the mix from the bottom with a bar spoon to integrate the elements of the cocktail.
With this method, you will achieve a perfectly balanced cocktail every time. (Pro tip: make sure your carbonated ingredient is chilled beforehand. The colder a drink is, the better it holds carbonation.)