How to Mix Drinks

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Ok.  You have your recipe.  You have your ingredients.  You have the necessary bar tools. Now what?

Get Organized

Clear off enough space somewhere where you can set out what you need and won’t be knocking over everything trying to get to your jigger.  As the great Harry Johnson wrote: “It is the bartender’s special duty to have his bench cleared up and in good shape at all times, he will find it to his advantage, if done properly.” Harry knew what he was talking about, so you don’t have to take my word for it. 

Now, this is important: chill your chosen cocktail glass with ice or stick it in the freezer. You don’t want your carefully prepared cocktail to go in a warm glass.

Measure Your Ingredients  

Do not free pour if you expect anything close to consistency. A miscalculation could be the difference between a great drink and a nasty look from your significant other who is pondering the possibility that you are trying to poison them.  

An aside: I hate it when bartenders free pour.  It is a misplaced sense of bravado, I believe.  Someone has convinced them (or they have convinced themselves) that “professional” means tossing liquor bottles behind your back and not deigning to use a jigger.  I don’t trust bartenders who do not use jiggers. If you take any pride in the final product, measure the ingredients. I understand that a certain amount of “flash” is expected of a professional bartender. After years on the job, bartenders develop their own shtick. Jerry Thomas (who published the first bartender’s guide back in 1862) was known for tossing flaming liquor back and forth between two tumblers (the drink was called a Blue Blazer). Giving your audience a show is one thing; giving them a drink that is improperly constructed is just bad form.

Shaken or Stirred?

There are, basically, two ways to mix a cocktail: you can stir it with ice or you can shake it with ice. If you want to go really old school you can swizzle a cocktail, but stirring does the same thing, so we’ll skip the swizzling for now.  You can also do a “thrown” drink. Do it wrong and that adjective becomes a verb with messy consequences. 

Shaking or stirring a cocktail does a couple of things. First, it chills the cocktail. Second, it dilutes the cocktail. Dilutes the cocktail?! Yes, a certain amount of dilution is desirable to take the edge off the alcohol and help meld the flavors. So, when do we shake a cocktail and when do we stir?  If you read Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book from the 1930s, almost every drink is shaken with ice. Whether this was fashionable in Craddock’s bar, or a result of lazy editing, it is nonetheless not a good guide to follow. Generally speaking, cocktails with “clear” (liquor, liqueurs, bitters, vermouths, etc.) ingredients should be stirred while those containing juices or cream should be shaken. If it contains egg whites, then it must be shaken very hard in order to get the egg to emulsify. Often folks will “dry shake” a cocktail with egg. Add your egg and other ingredients according to the recipe, but leave out the ice. Hold the shaker tightly and shake the bejeezes out of it. Be careful as egg likes to leak out of the shaker. If you have to, hold the shaker with a tea towel.  It’s better than slinging egg whites all over your guests. Some bartenders also put the spring from a Hawthorne strainer in the shaker to help stir things up. I’m sure it helps, but it’s messy and just something else to clean. The idea is to emulsify the egg and mix it well with the other ingredients. After the dry shake, you add your ice and shake as usual. My preferred method is to beat the egg (white, yolk, or whole depending on the recipe) before adding it to the shaker with the rest of the ingredients and the ice. Shake it very hard, very fast. The advantage to this method is that the egg is per-emulsified so no dry shake is necessary and eliminates the problem of leakage.

If the only purpose is to cool the drink and slightly dilute it, then it makes no difference at all whether you shake or stir. Or does it? There are other factors to take into account: aesthetics and something called “mouth feel.” For drinks with all “clear” ingredients, general consensus is to stir the drink. The reason is that if you shake the drink it will become cloudy with a billion tiny air bubbles. Who wants a cloudy Saratoga or Negroni? Not I. Also, stirred drinks feel different in the mouth. Depending on the ingredients, they have a silky, oily (think olive not motor) smoothnessHarry johnson 2 as it rolls across the tongue and swirls against the cheeks before sliding effortlessly down the throat. Drinking cocktails is not just about getting zozzled.

How Long do I Stir or Shake a Cocktail?

The simple answer is: long enough to get the cocktail cold and not so long as to over dilute it. There have been infinite debates and experiments to determine the optimum time to shake or stir a cocktail based on dryness of the ice, amount and type of ingredients, type of shaker or how the drink is stirred (twenty times counter-clockwise in a carousel motion…).  We seek absolutes, apparently. Or, perhaps, some people should have another cocktail and just relax. The one thing many bartenders do get wrong is they do not shake or stir long enough, fearing, I suppose, over dilution. I’ve actually read a lot of the data out there and compared opinions on the subject (maybe I need another drink), so let me make this simple for you (and me):

Shake a cocktail for 10 seconds.  Stir a cocktail for 20 seconds.

And I mean 10 seconds.  Count them. One Mississippi, two Mississippi…. And when I say shake, I mean shake. Don’t rock the cocktail to sleep. There, that’s settled. 

Finally, the glorious, properly measured, properly chilled libation is ready to be served. Using your Hawthorne or julep strainer (see the page on Bar Tools), strain the drink into your pre-chilled glass. If the drink contained juices or muddled ingredients, you might wish to double strain the drink by pouring it through your fine mesh strainer. Tap it lightly with your mixing glass or tin to encourage all that wondrous elixir into the glass. Artfully arrange your garnish, if any, and revel in your accomplishment.

Salute! A votre santé! Prost! Cheers! Down the hatch!