When to Stir and When to Shake

dark bar with a man stirring a cocktail in a mixing glass

How to do it right, and how to get around it.

By Erin Henderson

Not long ago I met a friend for an afternoon drink. We treated ourselves to enjoying a tipple at one of Toronto’s luxurious hotel lobby bars, ordering a martini for $25 a pop.

His arrived with tiny ice flakes floating along the surface. At a bar as esteemed as this, and for the eye-watering price they confidently commanded, this mixology faux pas was beyond the pale (which the martini should have been if not marred with ice bits). Listen, if I’m at your brother-in-law’s place for a backyard barbecue and he does his best to bring me a decent drink, I have no qualms with a less-than-pristine cocktail. But when you can boldly look me in the face and hand me a bill for $50 for 6 ounces of booze whilst adjusting your ironic, art deco bow tie, well, then I take issue.

I largely suspect the barkeep shook when he should have stirred. I also think he neglected to double-strain, but that’s a story for another day.

While this is an unacceptable gaff from a pro, it’s often a confusing issue for home bartenders. When does one stir and when does one shake? Read on, Grasshopper (which, by the by, is shaken.)

A cocktail being poured through a sieve into a martini glass

Bottom Line

When a drink is spirit-only, such as a martini, Manhattan, or negroni, it is to be stirred. This keeps the clarity of the alcohol, reduces dilution, and chills the cocktail but does not make it overly frosty.

When drinks include mixes such as juice, milk, or egg, like a margarita, daiquiri, or whisky sour, the call here is to shake. Shaking incorporates air into the mix, which in turn creates tiny bubbles which give the cocktail a cloudy, frothy look. The vigorous action of shaking over ice also allows the ingredients to thoroughly incorporate and hold together for the amount of time it would take to finish the drink.

Exceptions to the Bottom Line

While the aforementioned is the correct way to go about doing things behind the bar, if your preference is to shake your martinis, then more power to you. The martini police will not come for you (if the police do show up at your party, they might be the strippers.)

The exception here, of course, is when pop – tonic, club soda, cola and the like – is added to the drink, such as a Tom Collins. Adding carbonated liquid to the shaker would obviously not end well. Instead, shake your spirits and mixes according to the recipe, strain, and top with soda.

James Bond

We can’t get far in this conversation without bringing up everyone’s favourite spy and what a charlatan he is for ordering a martini “shaken, not stirred.”

But, if I’m not mistaken, Bond ordered a Vesper, a martini named after the femme fatale in 1953’s Casino Royale. It was a heady concoction of three gin, one vodka, half of Lillet, and finished with lemon. My first counter point to all our shaken vs stirred smugness, is that, until that book, the Vesper was a fictional drink so it could be made whichever way author Ian Fleming pleased. My second volley is that purists are boring. Live and let die.

cocktail shaker being shaken
How to Shake and Stir

The tools needed to shake are, ideally, a shaker, available pretty much anywhere for less than $20. I like the versions that have a tin bottom and a glass top because they are less likely to stick together when cold. You will also need at least a Hawthorne strainer (a flat disc surrounded by a coiled spring) and preferably a cocktail strainer (a tiny sieve, see the photo above) as well.

Fill the tin with ice, add your ingredients, close with with the glass topper, and shake what your mama gave ya until the tin turns frosty – maybe 10 seconds or so. Using the Hawthorne strainer, pour the contents into your chosen glass.

To stir, a mixing glass is both pretty and functional. You can find good ones for $20 in any well stocked kitchen or cocktail shop. Fill your mixing glass with ice, pour in your ingredients, and using a barspoon stir for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds, until you feel the ice “give.” Using your trusty Hawthorne strainer, pour into your chosen glass.

Work Arounds

If you do not have proper bar equipment and for whatever reason are unable to get some, there are ways to get around using the “official” tools (no judgment here – I rented a house in Nicaragua last February that claimed to have a fully equipped kitchen. Turns out we have different ideas of what “fully equipped” means.)

Shaker: mason jar and a kitchen sieve
Mixing glass: mason jar or pint glass
Barspoon: chop stick (I actually prefer this)
Jigger: measuring spoons and cups (you just need to do a bit of math for the conversions.)

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