Spirit Guides

When to Shake or Stir a Cocktail

By • April 3, 2014 • 14 Comments

When he's not busy running the cocktail program at New York City's Maialino, Erik Lombardo is giving us the rundown on all things spirits -- and showing us the best ways to drink them.

Today: For the happiest hour, learn when to stir, and when to shake. 

Stirring vs. Shaking from Food52

It’s the moment you’ve long dreaded: You’ve invited your mustachioed, speakeasy-going friend over for dinner and he’s asked for a cocktail. He watches incredulously as you pour gin, vermouth, and Campari into a cocktail shaker, his voice slowly trailing off from his story as the ice slams back and forth in your shaker. As you strain the slushy mixture into a glass, you’re forced to listen to a tirade about when to shake and when to stir, and you can’t help but think to yourself: Does it really matter?

Well…yeah. He’s not wrong. 

Every cocktail is comprised of a few key ingredients. You need booze, or it isn’t a cocktail. You need modifiers (like citrus and syrups), or it’s just a shot or neat pour of spirit. You also need water, which almost always comes in the form of ice. Water does many things for alcohol, but one of the best things it does is to lower the relative proof from something mouth-numbingly strong to a more enjoyable level. Think of Picasso’s Guernica: At nearly 12 by 27 feet long it’s enormous, but if it were on something the size of an iPhone you would never be able to see any of the detail. That’s what water does: It adds more canvas. If you consider the fact that most cocktails are about 3 to 3 1/2 ounces of ingredients, but can be reliably called upon to fill 4 1/2- to 6-ounce glasses, you come to realize that somewhere between a quarter and a third of your finished cocktail is water. So the kind of water you’re adding -- and the way you add it -- will end up changing the character quite a bit.

More: Practice stirring on the Boulevardier. Twice.

A great rule of thumb that will rarely ever steer you wrong is this: Stir spirits. That is, if your cocktail is all liquor, stir it. This includes the martini, Manhattan, old fashioned, negroni, and all of their variations. The technical reason for this is simple: They all contain alcohol and have relatively similar densities. They can be incorporated very efficiently by just stirring them together, and if you mix Campari, vermouth, and gin in a glass and let it sit for a week, every part of that mixture will be an undiluted negroni.  

When you stir, the ice should be a combination of very dense, large pieces and smaller chips. The best way to achieve this is to put your cocktail in the mixing glass, add large pieces of ice until full, then crack smaller pieces of ice into the glass with your bar spoon until it has filled in the gaps left by the large ice. Stir vigorously but smoothly until your cocktail is properly diluted, which depending on environmental factors (was the mixing glass chilled? Did the ice just come out of the freezer? Are you in Death Valley?) can take anywhere from 5 seconds to a minute. If you’re using good ice cubes from right out of the freezer, shoot for 25 seconds. (Alternatively, just stir whole cubes, without cracking them first, for slightly longer.) Despite popular belief, shaking doesn’t get cocktails colder -- as long as you’re taking the time to stir correctly. Stirring will yield an icy, dense, and silky cocktail, while shaking will yield a frothy, light, and crisp cocktail.

More: Onto the shaking? The Whiskey Sour is here for you.

The major difference between shaking and stirring is texture, and the reason the textures differ so much is because of the ingredient that you add while shaking that you don’t add while stirring: air. Shaking, if you’re doing it right, is a violent and dynamic process. The ice cubes are shattering into miniscule shards and adding tiny bubbles to your drink while slamming back and forth in the shaker. This is extremely important when you’re using citrus as an ingredient in your cocktail, because without the lightness that shaking imparts to the drink, the acidity of the citrus can be unpleasant and intense instead of light and refreshing. And citrus juice and alcohol are very different densities, which means they don’t mix easily. (If you mixed gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and club soda together and left it for a week, you wouldn’t walk back to find a Tom Collins -- you’d find a boozy mixture sitting on top of suspended pulp.) 

The ice in the shake is just as important as it is in the stir: Use large cubes or pieces of very cold, dense ice. (If you’re using standard cubes, a good rule of thumb is 5 cubes.) Shake hard and fast. In my experience it is a fact that you can’t shake a cocktail too hard, merely too long. Again, it’s going to take a little practice, but a good rule of thumb is to shake as hard as you can for 8 to 10 seconds. The larger the chunk of ice in the shaker, the longer you have to shake. And keep in mind that egg white drinks require additional shaking, because you’re adding yet another level of density to the mix. 

So: Shake for citrus, stir for spirits. Those of you who have never had a properly stirred martini, give it a try -- you might surprise yourself with the results.

Photos by James Ransom

Jump to Comments (14)

Tags: spirit guides, cocktails, techniques, stirring, shaking

Comments (14)

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4 months ago Upwtwist

A 500-ml beaker from any scientific supply house, or even eBay, makes a great martini pitcher. Stirred works best for me—no stirring rod needed. Just 50 gentle rotations, and let it sit for a few minutes. Plymouth Gin and Dolin vermouth. Dolin's so good you can use more than just a whisper.

Stringio

5 months ago Steph Max

@Better Than Mom's maybe you should just order your martini stirred and ask for a lime on the side.

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5 months ago Better Than Mom's

So when I order my martini straight up with a twist, at any restaurant, bar, night club etc, I am at the mercy of how experienced the bartender is. More often than not, it comes to the table as a martini-slushy. I don't think most bar-keeps know anything about "stirring". What to do, what to do? Order a beer?

Stringio

5 months ago Steph Max

The stirred martini is a "James Bond 007 thing" :~) I like them both ways.

Sit2

5 months ago Sam1148

Sam is a trusted home cook.

Sorry, I like my martini shaken. I like the little ice crystals and lighter texture of a shaken drink. I've had both..I'll go with shaken. This is all a matter of taste and shouldn't be a 'rule' to snob down on people; I'd rather be happy than correct.

170178

5 months ago Erik Lombardo

Couldn't agree with you more! And you should never apologize for your preference, nor should you ever drink at an establishment that acts snobbish to them. My goal is to demystify a little bit of the "why?" behind the different techniques. I do believe that many people who prefer shaken martinis have yet to be exposed to a properly stirred one for comparison, hence the post. Shake Away!

Sit2

5 months ago Sam1148

Sam is a trusted home cook.

I always like watching Bewitched...Samantha always had a pitcher of stirred martinis waiting for Darren when he got home, it was always puzzling to me why he was such a Jerk...that dude hit the jackpot.

Chef_cochon

5 months ago North Country Rambler

Yes! Thank you. My very first mentor in bartending taught me - many many years ago - that a martini is 1/3 water, so it must be stirred - 30 times. Clockwise!

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5 months ago Jeffrey DiTolla

I would love to buy that mixing glass in the first photo. Does anybody know where I could purchase it?

Mirrors

5 months ago Don Roszel

If you find out where, be sure to share!

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5 months ago rsimpson3

You can get one here: http://www.cocktailkingdom...

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5 months ago Jeffrey DiTolla

@rsimpson3 Thank you!

Mug

5 months ago Ileana Morales | a little saffron

Shake for citrus. Stir for spirits. I can remember that!

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5 months ago Brette Warshaw

This is so helpful. Thank you Erik!