Learn the rules of when to shake or stir cocktails

When deciding to shake or stir a cocktail, choose your weapons wisely.

When deciding to shake or stir a cocktail, choose your weapons wisely.

We’re all familiar with a certain secret agent who orders his Martinis with vodka, shaken, not stirred. Why was he so specific? Well, if he’d simply ordered a Martini, his bartender would have made it with gin, and would have stirred it—not shaken it. There’s a reason for this: that’s how a Martini is made. James Bond just didn’t care, because he’s a rebel who breaks the rules, even when it’s a terrible idea.

So, when should you stir and when should you shake? Some people say it’s a matter of preference. And sure, you can be a rebel and make your drink however you like. But first you should understand why certain mixtures are meant for the raucous throes of a cocktail shaker, while others are destined to dance in circles with a cocktail spoon.

Why shaking or stirring your cocktail matters

According to Erik Lombardo at Food52, “The major difference between shaking and stirring is texture.” More specifically, each process imparts a very different texture to your beverage. It all comes down, more or less, to two things: aeration and dilution.

Stirring a cocktail is like painting in smooth, even layers to achieve a glassy finish. When you stir a cocktail, the gentle swirling of the ice causes very little agitation. This helps to preserve each ingredient’s integrity and distinct flavors. It also minimizes aeration, which results in a dense, focused, and viscous texture. Stirring is ideal for spirit-forward cocktails, when you’ll be adding ingredients like vermouth, bitters and amaro to your base.

Shaking, on the other hand, is like painting in thick strokes, or even splatter-painting: you change the texture quite a bit. The violent collision of ice cubes causes intense agitation. This more effectively unifies the various ingredients. It also adds a lot of aeration, which leads to a light, frothy, creamy texture. Shaking is best for cocktails with fruit juices, syrups, cream, or egg whites—ingredients that need some force to fully integrate and come to life.

The best rules to follow when shaking or stirring your drink

There may be different techniques of exactly how shake or stir a cocktail. However, there are some basic rules of thumb to keep in mind. Use these guidelines to get consistent, delicious results.

Regardless of whether you shake or stir, put all your ingredients into your vessel before you add ice. Why? The moment the liquids come into contact with the ice, dilution begins. If you put your ice in first, it begins melting as you pour booze over the top, and by the time you finish mixing, you’ll have over-diluted the mixture. Add your ice right before you mix.

While we’re on the topic of ice, know this: you’re probably not using enough of it. Using too little ice will water down your drink even more, and chill it less effectively. You’ll end up with a weak and tepid cocktail. Don’t be shy with those ice cubes.

How long you shake or stir depends on the drink, but stirring will always take longer than shaking. Social Hour Cocktails recommends a general rule of stirring for 18–25 seconds, and shaking for only 8–10 seconds. If you’re making a Ramos Gin Fizz, however, you might be at it for a good 12 minutes.

If you’d like some tips on how to hold your shakers and spoons, the good folks at A Bar Above have created some instructional videos with basics on how to shake and how to stir.

When the mixing is done, it’s time to pour. Generally, when stirring you’ll use a simple julep strainer. If you’re shaking, you should double-strain through both a Hawthorne strainer and a fine mesh strainer. Why? Shaking results in a smattering of tiny ice crystals, and double-straining will catch them. If they’re allowed to slip through to the surface of your drink, they’ll quickly melt and water it down.

Recipes to practice your shaking and stirring skills

I have to agree with Rebecca Orchant at The Huffington Post who declares that if “you shake a Manhattan we cannot be friends.” Certain drinks, for all the reasons above, simply turn out better when you stick to the recommended approach. You should always stir Martinis, Manhattans, and Negronis. You should always shake Margaritas, Gimlets, and Sidecars.

Here’s a couple basic recipes to practice your stirring and shaking skills and achieve chilly perfection.

Stir: Boulevardier

The Boulevardier is basically a Negroni, but with whiskey in place of gin. Try different whiskeys and vermouths to suit your taste.

  • 1 1/2 oz Bourbon
  • 3/4 oz Sweet Vermouth
  • 3/4 oz Campari

Measure all three ingredients into your mixing glass, then fill with plenty of ice. Stir your cocktail spoon around the outer edge of the glass until well-mixed and well-chilled. Strain through a julep strainer into a rocks glass with the biggest ice cube possible. Garnish with a strip of lemon or orange peel.

Shake: Grasshopper

Don’t try to pretend that you’re too good for the Grasshopper. Around this time of year, no one can deny the allure of Thin Mint Cookies, or even the guilty pleasure of a Shamrock Shake. So let’s get over ourselves and embrace the glory of this boozy mint-and-chocolate classic.

  • 1 oz Crème de Menthe
  • 1 oz Crème de Cacao
  • 1 oz fresh cream

Pour all ingredients into your cocktail shaker, then top up with lots of ice. Shake it like you mean it, because you want to whip this thing into a frothy frenzy. Double-strain into a coupe or cocktail glass (AKA Martini glass). 

Want to really put all this dogma to the test? Try making each of the above cocktails twice: once stirred, once shaken. A side-by-side comparison should make the difference clear. Still, if you want to break the rules after that, go right ahead. It’s your cocktail funeral, secret agent.