Dasha Petrenko / EyeEm / Getty Images
The goal when mixing a drink is simple: you want to add enough water content from the ice to balance out the cocktail's alcohol and other ingredients while simultaneously chilling it. Regardless of whether you shake, stir, blend, or throw your drink, lowering the drink's temperature and adding dilution should be the result.
Your mixing method and, as a result, the level of agitation during shaking also impacts the amount of air that is added to your drink; shaking a drink makes for maximal aeration, while stirring is only minimal. This detail has a significant effect on a drink's texture, which contributes to mouthfeel and how certain flavors are perceived. Texture can make the difference between a memorable cocktail and a forgettable one.
While the rules of when to employ one technique versus another are actually quite simple, it's not uncommon to see enthusiasts shaking certain drinks instead of stirring, or vice versa (and if you're curious about whether your dry gin martini should be shaken, the answer is absolutely not –– regardless of what James Bond prefers). To get to the bottom of when and how to shake or stir, here's everything you need to know.
When to Shake Your Drink
The rule for when to shake a drink is straightforward: if a cocktail calls for citrus or other juices, cream, eggs or dairy products — essentially, if the mix of ingredients is somewhat cloudy and opaque — then shaking is likely required. It's worth noting that for egg whites, you'll need a wet and dry shake (with and without ice) to properly emulsify the mix. This is because to properly integrate these components and achieve a cohesive and pleasurable texture, a significant amount of aeration and agitation is required. Try a stirred margarita next to one that you've shaken and you'll experience the difference technique makes first-hand.
As is the case with any mixing method, the rate at which a drink is chilled and diluted properly is the most important detail to consider. For shaken drinks, this requires a touch of vigor, rhythm, and awareness of the state of the ice (more on that below) you're shaking with.
How Long to Shake Your Drink
The general rule for how long to shake a drink is: if your ice is wet (i.e if it has been sitting out and slowly started to melt), is shaped irregularly, or is fine, like crushed ice, then shake vigorously for a shorter period of time, roughly 5 to 7 seconds. If the ice is proportionate, tempered, and clear — like one by one ice cubes made from commercial ice machines at bars — then a proper shake of 7 to 12 seconds is in order. And if you want maximum aeration with the appropriate chill and dilution, you can use a tempered two by two ice cube with one small cube and shake for 12 to 15 seconds.
There are also differences in how long a cocktail should be shaken depending on whether it's served up or over ice. If your cocktail is being served up, shake longer and to full dilution. If the cocktail is being served over ice, shake vigorously for 5 to 7 seconds to aerate and chill without achieving full dilution. Remember, the drink will also receive some water content from the ice in the glass as it melts over the course of the drinking session.
If you're using a common two-piece stainless steel tin shaker, make sure you build the drink in the smaller tin, add ice, and seal with the larger tin at a slight angle, and shake with the smaller tin facing you. In the case where the shaker breaks apart mid-shake because it wasn't properly sealed (this can happen especially when shakers are new and not broken in), it'll be you who gets hit with the liquid contents as opposed to your guest — an etiquette that you'll notice at most cocktail bars.
Indeed, shaking can be as straightforward as putting the ingredients in your mixing tins, adding ice and letting it rip –– but to create the optimal shaken drink, every detail matters.
When to Stir a Cocktail
Many of the same concepts from shaken drinks apply to stirring, especially in terms of the size, shape and state of the ice used. The main difference between shaking and stirring is that stirred cocktails should receive as little aeration as possible in order to yield a silky, semi-viscous elixir; typically, this means that all of the ingredients in the stirred cocktail are clear and free from the particles you'd find in citrus juices and so on.
How Long to Stir a Cocktail
The general rule for how long to stir a drink is: if your ice is wet, proportionate, tempered, and clear — like one by one ice cubes made from commercial ice machines at bars — then stirring for 30 to 45 seconds will yield a balanced drink. If your ice is wet and misshapen (e.g. broken ice with one by one cubes), then you'll need less time to achieve the desired chill and dilution. It's best to taste the drink as you go by using a straw mid-stir to see how much more dilution it needs, and if you use larger chunks of ice, you'll need to stir for longer.
The other detail to keep in mind is whether or not your stirred cocktail is served up like a martini, or down like a Negroni, certain cocktails benefit from more water content, or dilution, than others. For the former, a longer stir is required given the alcohol content of the drink and because it's being served without ice. Meanwhile, a Negroni can be under-stirred, and therefore under-diluted, since it is served over ice and will dilute over the course of the drinking session.
To build a stirred drink, use a mixing or pint glass, although a wider base is best so the liquid can come into contact with as much ice as possible), then add ice and add the ingredients in the glass. Practice makes perfect when it comes to mixing methods, and the more you dial-in your technique, the easier making quality cocktails becomes. Properly preparing cocktails can be as simple as you'd like it to be, but to make cocktail bar-worthy drinks, the devil is in the details.