Shaken and Stirred, Part 1: A Stirring Start

I warned you I’d end up talking a lot about ice. 

In last week’s newsletter, I talked about the importance of technique. And no two techniques are more important to making great cocktails than shaking and stirring. Today, we’re going to focus on stirring. 

You might be thinking: Why does this matter at all? And really, how hard can any of this be? It’s just...shaking and stirring. How do you mess that up? 

But the little things are what make a fine cocktail good or great. This is always the case with food. You could stick a crusty beef patty between two pieces of white bread and call it a hamburger. But the difference between a bad hamburger, a good hamburger, and a brain-meltingly delicious hamburger experience at In-N-Out — the kind you’d stand in line for hours to try — is all in the details. Shaking and stirring are details, but really, really important details. 

The Rules of Stirring and Shaking

You’ve probably noticed that some recipes call for shaking a drink, others for stirring. If you haven’t spent a lot of time reading cocktail recipes, it might not be obvious why one method is preferred over another for any given drink. 

But the basic rule is actually pretty simple: Most drinks that involve juice — like, say, a whiskey sour or a Margarita or a daiquiri — are shaken. So are drinks that involve egg.

Most drinks that rely only on spirits, bitters, and/or syrups — like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan or a Negroni — are stirred. This includes all conventional Martinis. I’m sorry, but James Bond was wrong. 

But while Martinis should always be stirred, there are occasional exceptions. A Bitter Giuseppe relies on a small portion of lemon juice to brighten up what is essentially a weird Manhattan. But even with the lemon, it’s a stirred drink. Some drinks are stirred — but in the glass they are to be served in, with the ice they are to be served with, in a method known as “built in glass.” And there are some less-common drinks that require no stirring or shaking at all, because, for example, they are chilled by freezing. 

The exceptions, however, are relatively rare. If there’s juice or egg, shake. If it’s just spirits, sugar/sweetener, and bitters, stir. These are pretty close to hard and fast rules. 

But it’s not enough to know when to shake and when to stir. You also need to know how and why — and which tools to use. This one will get a little bit fussy. But in a good way! 

Ice, Ice Baby

Shaking and stirring have several functions, all of which are interrelated.

  1. They chill the ingredients in a cocktail by exposing them to ice.  

  2. They dilute the ingredients, adding water to the mix as the ice is moved around and begins to melt. 

  3. They integrate the ingredients, harmonizing the flavors and making the mixture consistent.

  4. They change the drink’s texture, the way it looks, physically, and thus the way it feels as you drink it. Shaking a drink aerates it, giving it foamy bubble-lattice. Stirring a drink retains or amplifies the viscosity of the ingredients, giving the liquid a silky texture and weight. 

Stirring and shaking, in other words, are ways of transforming your cocktail ingredients into a cool, cohesive, consistent whole. 

But you’re not just aiming for consistency within the drink you’re making right now. You’re aiming for consistency across the drinks you make. If you can’t make the drink the same way every time, then in some sense, you aren’t making the same drink. You can’t perfect your drinks unless you can reproduce them consistently. 

Every single time you stir an Old Fashioned, you should dilute and chill it exactly the same amount as every other time. Every single time you shake a daiquiri, you should dilute and chill the drink exactly the same amount as every other time. If you make the same drink 10 times, the 10 different cocktails should be indistinguishable. Which means you need to learn to stir and shake exactly the same way time after time after time.  

What all of this means is: You’re going to have to start thinking about ice. Maybe not as much as I think about ice. (I think about ice...a lot. Like, too much.) But probably more than you already do. It’s hard to overstate how important ice is to the quality of your finished cocktail. 

In a drink served over ice, it’s a garnish, a frame for the drink that changes your perception of it and how it goes down, giving it added visual appeal. Crushed ice makes a tiki-style into something resembling a boozy slushy, while everyone loves big, clear ice cubes in Old Fashioneds (which aren’t just for show; they slow the rate of dilution and highlight the color of the cocktail). This is what you might call presentation ice, which goes into the drink when it’s served. I’ll go over presentation ice in a later edition, but for now, if you want big, perfectly clear cubes, the best place to start is with a Clearly Frozen clear cube mold

But the ice that you stir and shake with before it’s served matters too. As do the tools you use. 

A Cheat Sheet For Stirring 

Today we’re going to focus on stirring, which, like kneading bread or shuffling a deck of cards, is part technical feat, part dextrous art. 

There’s a lot to talk about, so here’s the cheat sheet, with numbered steps to make it easy to remember: 

  1. Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass. 

  2. Add the ice. 

  3. Stir with a long spoon, smoothly and rapidly circulating the ice until the drink has become appropriately chilled and diluted. 

  4. Use a strainer to pour the newly chilled, diluted, and integrated drink into your serving glass. 

Sounds easy, right? But like I said, getting this process exactly right, every single time, requires some attention to detail, so now we’ll go into each step more deeply. Starting with gathering  our basic tools. 

The Stirred Drink Toolkit

First, you’ll need a mixing vessel of some sort. You can use a fancy-looking mixing glass with a nice pattern. I prefer a slightly larger, 24-ounce mixing glass, like this one from Hiware. But any no-frills 16-ounce pint glass will do just fine, or even just a large, sturdy drinking glass, provided it has a round (not square or angled) interior. 

The second thing you’ll need is a mixing spoon; I prefer a longer, 15-ish inch spoon, like this one from Viski. You may be tempted to pull a soup spoon out of the drawer and call it a day, but a quality mixing spoon is actually a crucial part of the bartender’s toolkit, because stirring cocktails properly requires a particular motion that is difficult with ordinary spoons. Cocktail mixing spoons are designed with a particular grip and balance that makes them perfectly suited for stirring drinks. They also look neat, of course, but they are not just an affectation. 

The third thing you’ll need is a strainer. There are multiple varieties of strainer, but you really only need one: a Hawthorne strainer, like this one from Oxo, which uses a coiled spring to give you control over how fine you strain your drink. 

The Importance of Consistent Cubes

Finally, you’re going to need ice. And not just any ice. To stir cocktails, you should try to always use medium sized cubes about one inch, or a little more, on a side. These sorts of cubes can be made easily using a mold. This is your stirring ice. Come to love it. 

But to be even more specific, you should always use three or four of these cubes for stirring, and only three or four. With a larger mixing glass (say, 24 ounces) you should use four. With a smaller glass (of, say, 16 ounces) use three. But use the same number of cubes each time. 

Now I want to stop and make something clear: This is not how pros typically do it. It’s one of the ways in which a home bartender often departs from a pro bartender. 

At a bar, there’s always ice. Lots of it. It might take a lot of effort to produce and maintain, but it’s never in short supply. So you might see a cocktail barkeep filling the mixing vessel with one-inch cube stirring ice. But while you could spend days and days filling and unpacking ice molds, and while you could buy a large stainless steel basin for at-the-ready stirring ice, the practical reality is that you probably don’t have a vast, effectively unlimited supply of good stirring ice, so you’ll want to conserve.

Thus you’re going to use just enough to make sure that 1) the bottom cube or cubes touch the bottom of the glass and 2) the topmost cube rises above the liquid in the glass. The ice should stack. No floating cubes allowed. 

This may seem finicky, but it’s how an amateur bartender achieves the necessary consistency and control to make great drinks not just occasionally, but all the time.  

The Subtle Mechanics of Stirring

Now let’s break down the process and motion of stirring a little further.

First, put the cocktail ingredients in the mixing glass, except for the ice. Only after all the ingredients are in should you move on to step two and put in your ice cubes. Putting the ice too soon makes it harder to control dilution. When you put the ice in last, you’re not washing the ice with the ingredients as you pour them in, and there’s no lag time before you start stirring.

Now take your mixing spoon and put it in the glass — not in the middle, but along the side. You should keep the bowl of the spoon facing inward, as if you’re about to scoop out a piece of ice. But instead of scooping out the ice, circle the spoon around the outer wall of the glass, keeping the bowl facing inward the whole time. 

It should look something like this, but with the spoon further down into the mix.

Let me explain why we’re being so fussy: The goal is to keep the ice circulating without concussing it. This is an essentially gentle motion, designed to get the ice moving without breaking it and leaving shards in the drink. There should be no ice violence. 

This movement may take you a few tries to master. It should be accomplished almost entirely with your fingers and wrist; the rest of your arm should barely move. This requires a kind of balancing that doesn’t work very well with normal spoons, which is why, as I said above, it’s worth buying a special cocktail spoon. 

The Secret to Perfecting Your Stir: Counting! 

Once you’ve gotten the motion down, you need to start thinking about how long to stir. And the best way to keep track is...by counting. Yes, I know this sounds silly, but this is a form of record keeping, of measuring your actions so that you can learn from and repeat them. 

I typically run eight-counts in my head while stirring, and most of my drinks end up somewhere between 24 (three counts of eight) and 64 (eight counts of eight) stirs. Even using the same amount of ice every time, counting won’t make your chill and dilution perfectly consistent; the temperature and humidity  of the room, the particulars of the ingredients matter too. But counting gives you a rough idea of what you’re doing, and makes it easier to tweak. 

Because even if you are counting your stirs, you will also need to learn to stir by feel if you want to get a drink to the ideal amount of dilution — that magical place where it is perfectly cool, perfectly integrated, perfectly flavorful, and yet not weak from being overly watered down. 

This can take a while to learn, in part because it will vary from drink to drink, for multiple reasons — most importantly, how you’re serving the drink. 

An Old Fashioned served over a single big piece of ice should be slightly under-diluted when served. That way, as the ice in the glass begins to melt, the drink moves closer to its ideal state. A Manhattan served in a coupe with no ice, in contrast, should be served fully diluted. Ingredients matter too: An Old Fashioned made with higher proof whiskey might require a few more stirs than one made with 80 proof booze. 

So in addition to counting your stirs, you should try running some taste tests: Make your drink, but don’t stir it at all. Taste it. You’ll notice that in addition to being a bit warm, it’s also a bit harsh. Without any dilution, the drink has not yet cohered, and the ingredients aren’t yet working together. 

Now stir eight times. You’ll notice a bit more integration, and some of the edge will have come off. Keep stirring, tasting every eight stirs or so. At some point, probably between 24 and 40 stirs, you will notice that the stirring action has changed as the ice has melted a bit. Also, the drink has come together. It’s not just colder, it’s more sure of itself. The drink’s rough edges have been chiseled off, its component parts are now working together as a whole. The drink has come into its own. You’ve made a delicious, delicate cocktail. 

But then — keep stirring and tasting. And eventually you’ll start to notice that the drink has become weak, watery, flabby, unappealing. This is what it tastes like when you overstir. 

Here’s another useful experiment. Try this with the Rittenhouse Rye Manhattan recipe I gave you last week

  • 2 dashes Angostura

  • 1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth

  • 2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until thoroughly chilled — 30-40 stirs. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry.

Take two of the same glasses — ideally cocktail glasses, but really any two identical glasses will do. Then make the same drink twice, pouring one into each glass. Compare the glasses. Are the fill lines exactly the same? If not, then you’ve diluted the two drinks differently. You’ve made a (slightly) different drink, one you can’t control, one that won’t taste the same every time you make it. This is what you’re trying to avoid.  

The trick is to find that middle ground, count your stirs, and get a sense of what that ideal state of just-chilled-and-diluted-enough feels like as you stir — and figure out how to stir to exactly that point every single time. As I keep saying, this probably won’t happen in a single evening (though you can learn the basics in an hour or two). You need to make a certain number of drinks to figure out all of this out. But  eventually it will become second nature, something you barely think about at all, like riding a bike or playing guitar. That definitely won’t happen, however, until you start thinking about it, working on it — and making some drinks. 

Stir Yourself Silly

Don’t want to make a Manhattan? Try these delicious stirred drinks instead. But remember: Count your stirs, taste as you go, and focus on getting that perfect balance of chill, dilution, and integration.

The Left Hand

This drink, created by Sam Ross at Attaboy in New York, is a riff on the Boulevardier, which itself is a sort of cross between a Negroni and a Manhattan. With a rich blend of cocoa-spice, bitterness, raisin-vanilla sweetness, and whiskey warmth, it’s a great drink for the very end of a cold winter night. 

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until thoroughly chilled — 30-40 stirs. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry. 

Monte Carlo

An old fashioned variant that uses rye as the base and substitutes the herbal-sweet Bénédictine for the sugar. Like virtually every rye-based drink, this one works very well with Rittenhouse

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until thoroughly chilled — 30-40 stirs. Straininto a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice. Garnish with a lemon peel. 

Conor’s Favorite

This off-menu drink was made for me several years ago at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, California, where I was visiting a friend. The bartender asked what I wanted, and I responded, as I often do, “stirred, boozy, and weird.” I got this smoky-sweet, lightly floral, sneakily bitter quasi-Old Fashioned. I asked for the recipe, and I’ve been making it ever since. 

  • 2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters

  • 1 ounce Cynar

  • 1 ounce Mezcal, preferably Del Maguey Vida 

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until thoroughly chilled — 30-40 stirs. Straininto a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice. Garnish with an orange peel. 

***

Cocktail Library:Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, by Dave Arnold. Arnold is the cocktail world’s foremost scientist. His book is filled with arcane techniques that can sometimes be difficult to master, especially at home, but always provide insight into the underlying science of drink making. His experiments are responsible for a huge amount of the knowledge we have about how drinks work, and he’s especially good at working through issues like dilution and chilling. 

Is anyone still making Thanksgiving Sours? What have you turned into an Old Fashioned recently?