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Shaken or Stirred: When To Do What

Why a cocktail shaker and a mixing glass and spoon are both home bar essentials

“Shaken, and not stirred.”

Probably the most famous drink order in history. The line famously first delivered by James Bond in 1958’s Dr. No.

But what’s the big difference? And why would Mr. Bond be so particular?

Turns out, there are plenty of reasons why a cocktail recipe might call for one method over the other. Depending on the drink, you might want to reach for the nearest shaker. Or grab your trusty mixing spoon.

The two ways most cocktails are prepared

It’s one of the first “rules” a rookie bartender learns. Typically, cocktails made from strictly alcohol-based ingredients like spirits, vermouths and liqueurs should always be stirred.

These kinds of spirit-forward cocktails include classics like the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Negroni and yes - Mr. Bond’s beloved martini.

The goal with stirred cocktails is to produce a silky mouth-feel, create velvety texture, achieve precise dilution and accomplish perfect clarity. Stirring helps to not over-dilute, over-cool or ruin the structure of the drink.

When you shake one of these spirit-forward cocktails in a shaker with ice instead of stirring it in a mixing glass or beaker, you create tiny air bubbles that can muddle its creamy texture.

You also run the risk of over-diluting stirred cocktails when you shake them instead.

The end result is often a cloudy mess. And the presentation is meant to be clean and clear. Or you might be left with tiny ice chips floating on the surface that may or may not be appreciated.

How to stir a cocktail

If you’re going to do it, do it right. There’s an art and a method to preparing stirred cocktails.

The first step is to combine the ingredients into your mixing glass or beaker. Then fill it with ice cubes. Believe it or not, the size of the ice cubes you use for mixing stirred cocktails can actually make a difference.

Smaller ice cubes will cool faster, and dilute the drink more. Where larger ice cubes take longer to melt and end up diluting the drink less.

When stirring, you’ll want to be sure and twist the mixing spoon from the top as you go. This ensures that the back of the spoon moves evenly around the glass or beaker. By doing so, you:

  • bring all the ingredients together

  • effectively chill the mixture

  • don’t over-dilute with melting ice

  • won’t cause the cocktail to get cloudy

Don’t be in a hurry. Stirring cocktails for at least a full 30 seconds ensures a clear, spirit-strong result that strains or pours at the perfect temperature for a much more enjoyable experience.

Shake it up

The purpose of shaking and stirring is the same. You’re adding dilution from the ice. When executed properly, either technique provides the perfect amount of water and chill to balance the flavor of a cocktail.

When it comes to shaken cocktails, it’s all about binding ingredients together. Something that stirring alone just can’t quite accomplish. This means that for any recipe calling for ingredients like dairy, egg whites, sour mix, simple syrup, thick mixers or juices - especially citrus juices - you better have your shaker on standby.

Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a drink that tastes incomplete and inconsistent, despite all the ingredients being present. With the first sip, you might just taste the alcohol. The next sip might smack exclusively of soury citrus. And the third is just a swallow of bitters.

The science of shaking

Most spirits have fairly equal densities. So, stirred cocktails that call for only spirits, vermouths or liqueurs mix together nicely with little more than a good swirl of the spoon.

But once you start incorporating elements that have disparate densities, like dairy, egg whites, sour mix, simple syrup, thick mixers or juices, it’s important to shake for a number of reasons.

First off, shakers combine these contrasting ingredients more thoroughly than a spoon and mixing glass or beaker ever could. Shaking also helps aerate the mixture inside, changing its texture.

Shaking will create tiny air bubbles that lighten certain cocktails, adding a satisfying froth to them.

Because shaking is more vigorous than stirring, shaken cocktails have a bubbly, clouded complexion when first poured or strained into a glass. Don’t worry. It clears up quickly.

That vigorous shaking also breaks down more ice than stirring does. So, shaken cocktails take on more water than stirred cocktails. Which helps create a well-balanced drink where all the ingredients are able to come together to form a single flavor.

A martini. Shaken, not stirred.

So, why does 007 order his martini shaken, not stirred? There might be a few reasons.

Maybe Bond just likes his cocktails extra cold. Cocktails that are shaken, not stirred are always going to be a few degrees colder than their stirred cocktail counterparts due to flakes of ice breaking off and flaking into the drink.

This also increases dilution. Which could be another reason the world’s most famous secret agent prefers his martinis shaken, not stirred. Between the increased dilution, and bartenders often tossing aside what’s left in the shaker after straining the drink into the glass, you’re left with a more watered down cocktail than you’d have with one that was stirred - Bond’s way of keeping his wits about him.

Maybe it just boiled down to taste. Shaking a drink energetically in a cocktail shaker will remove volatile compounds from the spirits inside. And the air oxidizes other organic compounds in the mix. It’s a chemical process, akin to letting a bottle of wine breathe, that affects its taste before serving.

The right way to mix a cocktail

Shaken or stirred, the only “right” way to mix a cocktail is the way you enjoy sipping it the most. Like your martinis ice cold with ice flecks floating on the surface? There’s nothing wrong with that. Prefer them stirred slowly and poured traditionally? Go for it.

The beauty of mixing cocktails with craft spirits is that you really can’t go wrong. So, have fun experimenting. Shake, stir and salute!

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