Shaken or Stirred?

A brief primer on the fundamentals of icing the perfect cocktail

By Tony Cross

Having discussed the different shapes and sizes of ice, and how it’s used as an ingredient and tool when making a cocktail, it’s time to explain how to use the ice you’ve molded at home when you’re stirring or shaking a cocktail. Everyone knows how to shake it, right? Wrong. Once on a weekend vacation in the mountains, I ordered a drink and the bartender shook my Manhattan. I didn’t have the heart to say anything — I drank it and left. It pays to know the difference.

Let me preface this by saying that I do not consider myself a professional bartender. I used to run a restaurant and bar, but I have never been “shown the ropes” from men and women at craft cocktail establishments who have been doing this for years and years. I taught myself by watching and reading. I’ll share what works for me, but keep this in mind: Everyone has their own style; you need to find yours. Cocktails have been a passion, and I’m lucky enough to get paid for what I do, but a professional? No, no, no. Please go see Gary Crunkleton at his bar in Chapel Hill. You’re welcome.

When stirring a cocktail, first you’ll need a mixing vessel. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from online, but if you don’t want to wait, and already have a barspoon, you can use a glass pint. You always want your vessel as cold as possible. If it’s at room temperature, your cocktail will be over-diluted when you finish stirring. The goal is to make sure your cocktail is very cold and properly diluted. Before you start stirring, you’ll need to understand why and what kind of cocktails to stir. A good rule of thumb is to stir clear drinks. By “clear” I mean cocktails that call for spirits, vermouth and bitters. If your cocktail calls for juice, an egg white and/or dairy, do not stir. You’ll want to shake those.

As the bartender mentioned previously should have known, a Manhattan is stirred. You’ll take your ice-cold vessel, and add 2-3 dashes of aromatic bitters, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth and 2 ounces of rye whiskey (for example). Then add your ice. Use smaller cubes of ice (1 inch square) or cracked ice. If you use larger pieces, your drink will be harder to stir while getting the proper temperature and dilution. Take your barspoon (typically around 12 inches long, with a very thin neck) and place the bowl of the spoon (the outside) to the inside wall at the bottom of the vessel. I am right-handed, so I hold the neck of the spoon 3/4 of the way up in-between my ring and middle finger. The remaining neck of the spoon travels on the inside of my index finger and thumb. I stir clockwise, and make sure that the back of the spoon almost always touches the inside of the mixing vessel while I stir. To do this, you’ll need to let the neck of the spoon rotate clockwise in your hand while you’re stirring. If you’re just starting out, I recommend flipping the barspoon upside down. It makes it easier to focus on getting the hand-to-barspoon placement right without having to concentrate on the bowl of the spoon fighting with the ice cubes. Another trick is to slightly bend the bottom of the neck (next to the bowl); this will make it easier to control the ice cubes.  For a quick visual, search for “Jamie Boudreau stirring” on YouTube. It’s a minute and a half tutorial, and it’s literally how I was taught. Stirring takes a little longer than shaking a cocktail because of the dilution factor. Practice makes perfect, and your stirring needs to be as smooth as possible. You shouldn’t really hear any noise while stirring. When shaking, however . . .

Be noisy as hell! I’ve seen many bartenders shake different ways. As long as you’re not over-diluting your cocktail, you’re good to go. Yes, it has to be ice-cold too. There are a couple of ways to over-dilute while shaking — shake too long; use the wrong ice (wet); or breaking up the ice cubes into little shards that dilute your drink in addition to the time you spent shaking.

When using standard mixing tins for shaking, you’ll have a large and small tin. Add ingredients and ice into the small shaker, and place the larger shaker on top, but not straight on top. You’ll want to give it a slight curve, kind of like a banana. Give the top of the vessel a firm hit from the palm of your hand to make sure it’s sealed. There will be a firm seal on about 1/8 of the tins but that’s OK. Next, flip the sealed vessel around so that the small vessel is at the top. You do this because if any liquid comes out, it will go toward you and not your guests. Because I’m right-handed, my left hand is firmly holding the large vessel (with bottom facing away from me) and my right hand is holding the small vessel, facing toward me.

I shake my drinks over my right shoulder, in a back-and-forth/pushing-and-pulling fashion. I use either 4-5 small cubes or 1 large cube and 2 small cubes. You do not want your ice to bang back and forth from one vessel end to the next. Instead, try to make sure the ice is being pulled back toward you as soon as it is rocketing away from you. When you finish shaking (around 10 seconds), place the connected tins in your left hand. Remember the small seal connecting the tins right before you started shaking? Look for that. Right where the seal starts to separate is where you’ll take the heel of your right hand and hit it. Doing so correctly will break the seal, allowing you to strain your drink.

Never bang the sealed tin against the bar or corner of a table. If you’re using a Boston shaker (large shaking tin and pint glass), the glass will break. As far as your shaking skills go, you’ll know when you’re getting it right after you strain your cocktail and see that the ice cubes look more spherical than before you used them. You’re only going to be able to achieve this while shaking fast. As the saying goes, wake the drink up, don’t put it to sleep. One last thing: Never shake a drink facing your friends or guests. If the tins slip out of your hands — which can always happen — you’ll knock them out. Turn to the side, away from them.

When starting to stir or shake for the first time, dilution is what you’re trying to perfect. It’s easier (at least it was for me) to feel how cold your drink is than to know when to stop stirring and shaking. I recommend purchasing a small digital scale to measure the ingredients, minus ice, in ounces before and after straining it into the glass. You’re aiming for a 1/2-ounce increase after you’ve shaken or stirred. Now get to work.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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