Stirring & Shaking Part 2: Why Your Shake Should Sound Good

Also: Why an effective shake makes a big wave.

A couple summers ago, I had the good fortune to find myself relaxing poolside at a hotel in Las Vegas. Of course there was an outdoor bar, and I could hear cocktails being shaken for those on the deck. 

Normally, I enjoy the rhythmic ice-on-metal crash of a shaken drink. It’s the percussion section of a good cocktail bar. It keeps the time, and reminds you, every so often, to look over at the bartender and wonder: Just what is she making? 

But in this case, it served as the opposite of an advertisement. From the short and listless sound of things, I could tell the shake was thoughtless and lazy, a pathetically brief rattle using crappy ice. The bartender didn’t care about the shake. Which was a pretty good sign the bartender didn’t care about the drinks. 

Last week, I wrote about stirring. Shaking, in many ways, is a stir in negative. It performs a very similar function, but it works in the opposite way. 

To make good cocktails, you need to learn to shake them well. As with stirring, that means choosing the right tools and the right ice, and learning to execute the motion properly and consistently, so that every time you make a drink it tastes the same. 

But more than a stir, a shake also provides an opportunity to put a personal stamp on the drink creation process. Although good shakes follow consistent principles, no two shakes are exactly alike. A shake is a kind of signature, a unique personal touch that colors a crucial part of the drink-making process. So learning to shake is also learning to make each drink in way that is uniquely your own. 

Why Stirring and Shaking Matter

Let’s briefly review the core functions of shaking and stirring:

  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 the way it feels as you drink it. Stirring a drink retains and amplifies the viscosity of the ingredients, giving the liquid a silky texture and weight. Shaking a drink aerates it, giving it a foamy bubble-lattice. 

Here’s another way to think about it: Shaking and stirring are both designed to chill, dilute, integrate, and transform the texture of a drink. Done properly, both produce a drink that is consistently the same every time you make it. The difference is that stirring is designed to make a drink heavy. Shaking is designed to make a drink light

The Shaking Cheat Sheet
As with stirring, there’s a right way to shake a drink, and there are...other ways. 

Doing it right means using the right tools, the right ice, and learning to perform a shaking motion that is 1) consistent over multiple drinks and 2) effective at producing maximum aeration. 

Once again, we’ll start with a short cheat sheet, then wade into the details:

  1. Combine the ingredients in a two-part metal shaker.

  2. Add a single large piece of ice to the shaker.

  3. Close and seal the shaker. 

  4. Shake in a piston-like motion for 10-15 seconds, or until the outside of the shaker is cold.

  5. Strain the drink into a serving glass.

The Right Shaker
There’s a good chance that if you are reading this, you already own a cocktail shaker. And there’s a good chance that it is the wrong one. 

In homes across America, I have encountered many variations on the classic three-piece shaker. The three-piece shaker consists of a single large vessel of roughly 18 ounces, plus a two-piece cap and strainer. It typically looks something like this:

I own several of these. And I never use them. They are pretty to look at, easy to understand, and quite infuriating to use — at least if you are shaking your drinks properly.

The biggest problem with the standard three-piece shaker is that if you shake it for long enough to get a thorough dilution, chill, and aeration — which is to say, long enough that the outside of the tin becomes quite cold — you are also likely to find yourself with a cocktail shaker that has frozen shut. The metal pieces constrict when cold, then refuse to come apart. This is a problem when one of your goals is to make your cocktails very, very cold. 

Far too many times have I found myself at the houses of friends, shaking up a drink — only to spend several minutes scrambling for knives and screwdrivers that I can use to remove the damn cap, while the drink inside slowly gets less fresh, and more diluted. 

The other problem with three-piece shakers is that the strainers do not offer variable control. With a three-piece shaker, you get what comes out of the holes in the strainer top, whether it’s what you want or not. It’s one size fits all.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: a two-piece weighted metal shaker set, typically consisting of an 18 ounce tin and a 28 ounce tin (“tin” is what bartenders call large metal shaking cups), plus a separate Hawthorne strainer — conveniently, the same one I recommended you use for stirring. I like this shaker set from Top Shelf Bar Supply. Cocktail Kingdom offers a fine shaker set too. 

This combination of a large and a small tin is sometimes known as a Boston shaker set. But many Boston shaker sets come with one part glass, and it’s actually important that both pieces be made of metal. 

Metal holds its temperature better, helping to keep your drinks cooler. And unlike glass, there’s no chance that it will shatter if you drop it — or, uh, accidentally sling it across the room, thwacking a friend in the eye or knocking over a pricey bottle of whiskey.  While generally avoidable, this is the sort of thing that can occasionally happen with a vigorous shake. (Please, just trust me on this one.)  

The Hawthorne strainer, meanwhile, gives you the option of what’s known as “gate control.” Cocktail books will sometimes spend pages on gate control, but the basic idea is really pretty simple: The spring on the strainer lets you control how fine your strain will be. Put the strainer on the shaker, then push it forward for a finer strain, removing more ice chips in the process. In most cases, you’ll want to strain it as fine as possible by pushing it as far forward as possible.

Finally, you’ll need ice. As with stirring, you want consistency, which means using the same number of pieces of the same size of ice every time you shake a drink. The tiny, half-melted pieces of ice from your refrigerator’s ice maker will dilute faster and less consistently than larger, denser pieces of ice. And they will shatter in patterns that are harder to control. If at all possible, avoid using them. 

You can use three one inch cubes of the same type I recommended for stirring last week. But for shaking, I prefer using a single two-inch cube from a silicon mold like this one. (You can also use ice from these molds for serving, although the ice will be cloudy rather than perfectly clear.) 

Using a single large cube helps reduce ice shards. It also helps with the chief goal of shaking: aeration. To understand why, it helps to think a little bit about the motion of shaking itself, and what it’s designed to do.

To Froth Your Drink, Make a Wave Inside the Shaker
Aeration is what gives a shaken drink its light, bubbly texture. The head of foam on the top of a drink comes from the development of air bubbles inside the liquid. It’s almost like beating egg whites: You’re trying to create a structural lattice that captures air and expands the liquid, making it fuller and frothier. The way to make that lattice, and capture air inside your liquid, is with a wave. 

Ever seen a wave at the beach? When it gets large and powerful enough, it’s topped with froth — the bigger the wave, the frothier the top. When you shake, that’s what should be in your mind: Create a giant wave inside the shake. You almost want a cocktail you can surf. 

The best way to do that is to start with a single large cube, two inches on each side. Shaken properly, that behemoth will create a big wave inside your tins, like a giant boulder rocking back and forth in a swimming pool. The boulder is going to create a much bigger, more cohesive wave than a bunch of tiny pebbles. A bigger wave means an airier drink.

Here’s how the process works at a more granular level of detail.

First, place the smaller of the two tins on the counter, and measure your ingredients into that tin. Then drop in your two-inch piece of ice, leaving. Take the larger of the two tins and cup it over the smaller tin, then smack it with the back of your hand. This will create a light seal that you can test by gently trying to pry the tins apart. 

Once the tins are sealed, take them in both hands and flip them horizontally, with the bottom of the larger tin facing away from you. Push and pull in a rapid piston-like motion for 10 to 15 seconds. You should feel, and hear, yourself rocking the ice back and forth inside the tin. Keep going until you can feel the outside of the tin start to freeze. That tells you that you’ve attained a sufficient chill. 

Once you’ve finished the shake, quickly turn the shaker so the larger tin is on the bottom, then smack the side of it, just below the top, with the bottom of your palm. You should hear a satisfying crack as the seal releases. Remove the smaller tin and set it aside; the liquid and ice should now all be in the larger tin. If you look inside, you should see a drink with a heavily frothed top. 

Now to pour it out: Cover the large tin with the Hawthorne strainer, and push the strainer forward, letting the inner spring grip the inside of the tin.

All you have to do now is tilt the tin toward your serving glass and strain out the liquid. The froth will often come out last, but a clearly identifiable layer of aerated liquid should appear on top of the drink. 

Congratulations, you’ve made a deliciously airy shaken cocktail. 

It’s OK to Smash the Ice — But Not Too Much
Stirring requires a smooth, circular motion that does not agitate the ice. You want to avoid ice chips entirely. 

A shake should be more violent — but not too too much. You want to push the ice back and forth, and it’s OK to be somewhat aggressive. But you don’t simply want to slam it into the walls of the tin. Some amount of ice breakup is inevitable and normal, but the goal isn’t to pulverize the ice into tiny bits.  Instead, you’re trying to build that big wave inside the shaker to give your drink its air, its texture, its character — its little bit of you-ness. 

I strongly recommend a horizontal shake, since vertical shakes end up slamming the ice top to bottom. But you should experiment to find the particular angle and rhythm that works for you. Mine goes horizontal, out from the chest. It’s rapid for about five seconds, with an eight second taper at half speed. It reminds me of the waves on the beaches of the Florida panhandle, where I grew up: building and building...but then lightly trailing off as it reaches the shore.

But I’ve seen great bartenders shake over their shoulders, out from their collarbones, up and down the length of their torsos. As long as it’s piston-like, focused on creating an aerating wave, and lasts long enough to obtain a complete chill, you’re probably doing it right.

It might sound a little bit obsessive to be able to detail my shake that precisely. But making good cocktails requires a little bit of obsession, a focus on getting every detail right, every single time. 

And I apologize for repeating myself, but this is important: Developing a precise shake puts your personal stamp on the process and makes it easy to repeat. You should remember the rhythm of it, the feel of it, but also the sound. 

You know how songs make everything more memorable? This is like singing a song, or repeating a poem — except you’re doing it with a cocktail shaker. The sound of a shake should be pleasing to the ear, musical and percussive. You don’t want to end up sounding like a sad and uninspired shake at a Vegas pool bar, do you?

Alternate Shakes
Some alternate shake styles are worth noting, although they are employed more rarely. 

First, the dry shake. This is used mostly for drinks that involve whole egg or egg white. 

Egg is difficult to blend with other components — it’s fat-heavy and protein-thick. So for these drinks, you want to perform a preparatory no-ice shake to incorporate the ingredients before chilling and diluting them. 

Start by combining the ingredients in your shaker, then close and seal it without adding ice. Shake vigorously for about 10 seconds. Then unseal the shaker and add ice. Re-seal it, then shake until fully chilled before straining, another 10-15 seconds. 

Occasionally you’ll see recipes call a method called a “reverse dry shake.” It’s a dry shake, except you perform the shake-with-ice first, and the no-ice shake second. The theory is that by dry shaking second, you incorporate all the ingredients, including the water from the dilution. In truth, I see no real advantage to this method. It’s fussier, and it requires you to strain in the middle of the drink. Try it if you like, but any time you see a reverse dry shake in a recipe, you have my permission to employ a regular dry shake. 

Second, the whip shake, which is mainly used for drinks that are served on crushed or small ice, aka pebble ice. That sort of small ice has a lot of surface area, which means it dilutes your drink very quickly. So quick, in fact, that you want to under-dilute the cocktail before serving. 

So for these drinks, instead of a long, intense shake over a single, large piece of ice, you’ll perform a quick, light shake over a couple pieces of small ice. You won’t see this explicitly called for in many drink recipes, but it’s useful for making crushed-ice drinks in the tiki or the  “fix” categories, a group of drinks that are essentially boozy slushies. 

Finally, the double strain. Technically, this isn’t a different way of shaking. But it does change the straining part of the process. 

If you really want to remove every single last ice chip from the drink, you’ll need to more than gate control. You’ll need to double strain it, pouring the liquid through your Hawthorne strainer and then through a handheld conical fine mesh strainer. This is a textural choice, and even if a recipe calls for double straining, you probably won’t ruin it by doing a traditional strain. But you will end up with a layer of floating ice chips that you may not have really wanted.

Test Yourself, Test Your Shake
Like stirring, getting your shake down will take some practice. It’s a habit as much as it is a method. But just as with stirring, there are useful ways to test yourself.

Once again, try making the same drink twice in a row, straining both versions into identical glassware. Are the fill lines the same? Are the froth-heads equal? Do the drinks taste the same when compared? 

If you still have the ingredients, you can practice your shake with a Thanksgiving Sour. The whiskey sour recipe I mentioned in the Rittenhouse Rye newsletter recently involves an egg, and thus makes a great test of your dry shake. 

But you probably want to try some other recipes as well, don’t you? 

Let’s Make Some Drinks! 

Winter Daiquiri

In the popular imagination, a daiquiri is a red, orange, or possible blue drink, often blended into a Slurpee-like consistency, and served in a stadium-sized plastic cup. If you see a drink like this being served under the daiquiri name, know this: Whatever it is, it’s definitely not a daiquiri. 

Instead, a daiquiri is an elegant, deceptively simple three-ingredient drink involving rum, sugar, and lime. It’s served up, in a coupe or Nick & Nora glass, like a Manhattan. And of course, it is served shaken. Indeed, it may be the ultimate shaken cocktail. 

Still, even within that stark three-ingredient spec, there’s room for a lot of play. I’ll cover the daiquiri and its cousins in much greater detail in a future newsletter, but for now, here’s the recipe for one of my favorites, and the first daiquiri I made that I was really happy with.

It’s a darker version that relies on El Dorado 8 year (a demerara rum aged in whiskey barrels) in combination with demerara syrup. With notes of toffee and tobacco, the El Dorado 8 is one of my go-to rum bottles, and at $26 or so, it’s not wildly expensive. You can even get away with using El Dorado 5 year, which is cheaper, but a little lighter in body. The demerara rum/demerara sugar combo is dark and wintry without quite being brooding. 

As with all shaken, citrus-forward drinks, you really need to use fresh-squeezed juice, extracted the same day you make the drink. 

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake for another 15 seconds or until the outside wall of the tin is chilled. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. No garnish.  

The Last Word

A Prohibition-era classic, this equal-parts herbal sour is a cinch to make and involves ingredients that are widely available. The only barrier is the expense of Chartreuse, which, at about $60 a bottle, is one of the most expensive ingredients you’ll find in common use in cocktails. Sadly, there aren’t really any good substitutes. 

  • ¾ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice

  • ¾ ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur

  • ¾ ounce London dry gin, such as Beefeater

  • ¾ ounce Green Chartreuse   

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake for another 15 seconds or until the outside wall of the tin is chilled. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. 

Gold Rush

This variant on the whiskey sour is another shaken drink that works especially well in the colder months. With a whiskey base balanced by lemon and honey syrup, it has a similar effect to a warm glass of tea with honey and lemon. 

The choice of whiskey makes a notable difference here: The drink was developed years ago, when Elijah Craig bourbon was somewhat less expensive and carried a 12 year age statement (it’s now just Elijah Craig Small Batch). That’s still a great bourbon for cocktails, and it works well here. But if you want something a little less expensive, try Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, sometimes known as Evan Williams White Label. It’s a delicious higher-proof bourbon that can be found for less than $20 a bottle. For a slightly spicier version, try it with Rittenhouse Rye. (I told you it works well in everything!)  

  • ¾ ounce rich honey syrup (see recipe below)

  • ¾ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice

  • 2 ounces bourbon

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake for another 15 seconds or until the outside wall of the tin is chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice. 

Notice something about the recipe? Even though it has none of the daiquiri’s ingredients, and it’s served on ice rather than up, it has the same structure as a daiquiri: 3/4 ounce of sweetener, 3/4 ounce of citrus, 2 ounces of spirit. They’re not the same drink — far from it. But they a constructed out of the same underlying idea.  

Honey Syrup
Honey syrup is one of the fastest, easiest sweeteners to make at home, and it will spruce up many cocktails when used as a substitute for a more conventional sugar syrup. Simply combine three parts (12 ounces) honey and 1 part (4 ounces) warm water in a large bowl. Whisk until thoroughly integrated — about 45 seconds. Transfer into a plastic squeeze bottle or other fridge-safe storage container. Store chilled in the refrigerator. It should remain usable for at least three weeks. 

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Cocktail Library:Regarding Cocktails, by Sasha Petraske. Few if any figures have played a more vital role in the cocktail revival of the last 20 years than Petraske. His early-aughts tiny New York bar, Milk & Honey, was the proving ground for many of the ideas and insights that now inform the best cocktail bars in the world. Completed after his death, this book gives a look at his thought process in the early days of the cocktail renaissance. Among other things, it covers the development of the Gold Rush.