If you’re just starting your home bartender journey, just knowing when to shake or stir cocktails can feel like a well-kept secret.
Believe it or not (we think it’s amusing, so we’re choosing to believe it), vessels possibly used for mixing prehistoric drinks have been unearthed in Mexico and South America – proof that humankind’s cocktail consumption dates back as far as 7000 BCE!
Half a world away in 3500 BCE the Egyptians were also busy mixing spices with their fermented grain concoctions to make them more palatable.
Later, many classic shaken cocktails emerged at the turn of the 20th century, with savvy Yanks determined to leave behind stuffy European traditions of wine and whiskey.
You can take these outlandish historical claims with a margarita’s worth of salt, but it’s a fact that we’ve been skillfully mixing cocktails for a long time.
As cocktail trends and techniques change over time, it can make cocktail making seem unnecessarily complicated.
But once you’ve got your head around the simple science behind stirring and shaking, you’ll be able to craft a drink a cocktail lover from period in history would be proud to sip!
Why do you shake or stir a cocktail?
A bartender at a masterclass shows guests when to shake a cocktail in a cocktail shaker. Photo: Jamie HendersonIn its most basic definition, the cocktail is an alcoholic drink that contains at least one spirit mixed with at least one other ingredient.
The blended nature of a cocktail means the separate ingredients need to be combined, and often diluted with ice, to achieve the desired flavour.
You can combine a cocktail either by stirring all your ingredients together or by adding everything to a cocktail shaker and giving it a good jiggling.
Both of these methods do different things to the ingredients in the drink, leading to subtle differences in flavour.
How do you tell which cocktails should be shaken, though, and which ought to be stirred?
What drinks do you shake?
We use cocktail shakers when our chosen ingredients will only combine reluctantly.
A good example is the ever-classic Daiquiri recipe – made with rum, lime juice and sugar syrup.
Because these liquids are all different densities, they need to be vigorously shaken to combine properly.
If you tried to make a Daiquiri just by stirring the ingredients together, you’d probably end up with a very tart first sip and a very syrupy finish.
What types of cocktail shaker are there?
A cocktail shaker aggressively combines and perfectly dilutes a cocktail.
There are three kinds of shakers to choose between: Boston, French, the Cobbler.
The Boston shaker is a simple two-piece shaker with one stainless steel half and one glass half.
The French shaker is a two-piece shaker, usually made entirely from stainless steel, with an elegantly tapered shape and a neater join than the Boston shaker.
Lastly we have the Cobbler, a three-piece shaker, generally the same shape as a French shaker but with a strainer built into the lid.
When to shake cocktails
Broadly speaking, we use a shaker for cocktails that contain any of the following ingredients:
Dairy products or creamy liqueurs
From a classically decadent Dulce de Leche cocktail to the fruity flavours of the White Carnation, almost any dairy-based cocktail needs to be vigorously shaken with ice to ensure it’s properly mixed and to achieve a perfectly silky texture.
Fresh fruit juices
Some of the tastiest cocktails in the history of booze are fruit-based shaker-made drinks.
Each of these needs a handful of (large) ice cubes and a good shake to force the fruit juice and booze to combine.
Eggs or egg whites
Egg whites are a great way to add delicious creaminess and aesthetically-pleasing foam to a cocktail.
A good example is the Amaretto Sour, with its beautiful balance of tart citrus, sweet almond liqueur and decadent foam.
Egg-white cocktails always need to be “dry shaken” first – i.e. without adding any ice, all the ingredients are thoroughly shaken for around half a minute.
Then add your ice and shake again to cool your drink to the perfect sipping temperature.
Simple syrup or sours mix
The same goes for sours-rich drinks like the Whisky Sour.
If you don’t give a sours cocktail a proper shake, you’ll end up with a patchy sub-par beverage.
What cocktails do you stir?
Now we’ve covered the drinks you need to shake, let’s talk about stirring.
Stirred cocktails end up much less diluted than their shaken counterparts.
In fact, shaking a cocktail that ought to be stirred can end up reducing the alcohol content by nearly 50%, compared to around the 25% proof-reduction achieved through stirring.
When to stir cocktails
Some people believe that alcohol with lots of flavour complexity, like a good botanical gin, can be “bruised” by an over-vigorous shaking.
We think this sounds a bit too pseudo-scientific to be totally true, but stirring a cocktail certainly combines ingredients much less aggressively than shaking, which is sometimes exactly what we want for our cocktails.
Always use big chunks of ice to cool a stirred cocktail.
If your cubes are broken, or too small, your beautiful beverage will end up cloudy as the ice splinters off into your drink.
For best results, use a proper bar spoon and swirl the drink steadily.
Don’t slosh it around in the glass, or it’ll end up over-diluted.
Combine all the ingredients for a stirred cocktail in a mixing glass, or a heavy-bottomed pint glass.
Add ice and stir for about 30 seconds, or until your drink is cool. Strain into a chilled glass and serve!
If a stirred cocktail is being topped with a carbonated mixer like a classic Cuban Highball, or if your recipe calls for you to muddle ingredients like an Old Fashioned, follow the same instructions as for a spirits-only cocktail.
Instead of using a mixing glass you build your drink directly in the glass you’ll be serving it in.
For built cocktails, the spirits are added first, followed by any flavour enhancers like bitters or liqueurs, and then the drink is finished with any mixers.
When to shake or stir cocktails: it’s your choice
Following the rules can help you when you’re learning the ropes, but, at the end of the day, you can mix your drinks however you like!
Nobody’s going to tell James Bond that his shaken martini goes against the cocktail code.
And if you can’t be bothered learning how to mix your favourite cocktails, you could always cheat with one of our pre-made bottled cocktails…