Hey, Bartender! Shaken or Stirred?

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Hey, Bartender! Why do you shake some drinks and stir other ones?

First of all, it’s not just about style. I’ll admit it, the frost on the shaker, the rattle of ice cubes: it looks and sounds pretty cool. Add a little bounce in your step, crank up the Starship, and suddenly you’re Tom Cruise in Cocktail.

A more scientific explanation holds that shaking a drink makes it colder. Is there any truth to this? Kind of. While shaking a cocktail will chill it faster than stirring, it will not ultimately make it any colder.

Whether or not you shake or stir a cocktail depends entirely on the ingredients. Fortunately, figuring out when to do what doesn’t require some arcane bartending knowledge passed down from Jerry Thomas. It’s actually pretty easy to remember.

Shake it
Shaking is a more aggressive method of mixing that allows denser ingredients to be more fully integrated in the cocktail. Ingredients such as fruit juices, liqueurs, syrups, and eggs should be shaken. For example, an Aviation and an Pisco Sour both require shaking.

After shaking, the finished cocktail will be cloudy. This typically clears up in a couple minutes, but it doesn’t really matter since your initial ingredients were not clear to begin with.

Another consequence of shaking is that it breaks the ice causing small shards and some water to sneak into your cocktail. Remedy this by using an additional handheld strainer like this one you can double strain drinks to ensure smooth sipping. The extra water, on the other hand, is nothing to worry about. It’s the natural dilution process that helps make cocktails more palatable.

Stir it
Stirring is a slower method of mixing that gently blends and chills the ingredients. If your base ingredients are clear — that is transparent, not necessarily clear in color — you should stir. For example, you should always stir Manhattans and Martinis, regardless of what James Bond tells you.

To properly stir, you’ll want to use a bar spoon like this one (though any longneck spoon with a small face will work in a pinch). Remember, stirring requires patience, which is why a lot of bartenders in busy bars prefer to shake everything. If you have the time to stir, do so gently developing a smooth rhythm as you move the spoon around the glass. The goal is for the finished cocktail to be as clear as if you poured it from a bottle.

FYI, a built cocktail is technically different from a stirred one. Built cocktails are made entirely in one glass. The ingredients are either intended to be layered, or given a quick stir. A gin and tonic, for example, is a built cocktail.

Does it really matter?
So is this whole debate simply another instance of cocktail snobs being needlessly fussy? Yes and no. I doubt anyone working at your favorite dive bar has strong opinions about Martini construction. (Also, don’t order a Martini at a dive bar.) And at home, you can mix up your cocktails any way you choose. Put your Manhattans in a paint shaker for all I care. But when you’re at a nice bar, you deserve to get your cocktail made the right way. What’s the point of enjoying a craft cocktail if you don’t get the full craft experience?

That said, I’ll never be that guy who calls out a bartender for mixing my drink the wrong way. And neither should you. (Nobody likes that guy.) For example, I ordered a martini at a nice bar recently and watched as the bartender shook all that delicious Hendrick’s to death. The resulting cocktail was cloudy and full of ice shards. Was it still good? Of course. (I had two!) But if you’re asking guests to drop up to $15 on a single drink, your cocktail game should be on point.

In the time-honored tradition of bartenders telling jokes, I’m going to end these columns with a standup clip. Enjoy.

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer and part-time bartender living in Vermont. Have a bar- or cocktail-related or question, you’d like answered? Send it to him on Twitter @JimSabataso with the hashtag #heybartender.