Shaken or Stirred- Techniques for Building Better Cocktails

Cocktail on BarThis week on The Back Burner we are taking a little time to return to the basics. Because there are techniques in the kitchen (and beyond) we should all master. Emilie summed it up nicely earlier this week when she said “common themes that are great to know”. She was offering some helpful tips in breadmaking, but she got me thinking about well made cocktails too.

I like a nice cocktail. A perfectly prepared, impeccably presented, cocktail. I like the whole process of a cocktail. The amassing of the very best ingredients. The high-tech gleam of good stainless steel bar tools. The shimmering, sparkling crystal of very good barware. I like the entire ritual. Maybe the allure is that certain bit of glamour attached to the ritual. Engulfed in nostalgia. Swank. Stylish. It’s that, yes, but so much more.

The official definition of a “cocktail” according to the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” That’s a pretty broad definition and it will certainly get you a drink when you’re thirsty. But does it explain what a good cocktail is– and how you get there? At it’s most basic, a good cocktail starts with good ingredients and careful preparation. That careful preparation is where I think I can help you with three solid guidelines.

1. Ice is important.

Choosing the right ice is essential to a well made cocktail. I like medium sized square-shaped cubes for stirring, shaking and serving most drinks “on the rocks”. One extra large ice cube is preferred in some very strong drinks that are sipped slow because it will keep the drink chilled without too much further dilution. Cracked (not crushed) ice is best for blender drinks and some specialty cocktails.

2. Shaken or Stirred?

The basic rule is simple: drinks made with spirits only, such as martinis and Manhattans should be stirred. A further advantage of this technique is a silky, viscous texture because less air is introduced into the mixture. A well-stirred cocktail starts with a mixing glass, or the metal half of a Boston shaker half filled with medium ice cubes (about 5 or 6). Use a long handled barspoon to gently stir the ingredients until a light frosting appears on the glass and the drink is properly diluted, about 20 seconds.

Shaking is a more aggressive form of mixing. It’s mostly reserved for drinks with juice or other heavy ingredients like eggs and cream. It lightens the mixture by adding tiny air bubbles and thin shards of broken ice which melt into the cocktail. To shake, add a pint sized glassful of ice cubes to the shaker. This will fill the chamber about ⅔ full. Cover the shaker with its cap, or in the case of a Boston shaker with the pint glass. Grasp the shaker with both hands, one holding the cap or glass securely, and shake vigorously until the surface of the shaker becomes frosty, about 20 to 30 seconds. Remove the cap and quickly strain the drink as instructed into a glass.

3. Measuring Your Ingredients.

Use a measuring device that has increments that you are comfortable with. I always wonder about bartenders who just “eye” the ingredients as they build a drink. I’m sure there are plenty of professionals who claim accuracy. But I have to wonder how consistent their results are from drink to drink.

Drop = 1 drop from an eye dropper not a shake top
Dash = ⅓ barspoon = ⅛ teaspoon = 0.6 ml
Barspoon = ½ teaspoon = 2.5 ml
1 pony shot = 1 fl oz = 30 ml
1 shot (jigger) = 1 ½ fl oz = 45 ml
1 teaspoon = 8 dashes = 5 ml
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons = ½ fl oz = 15 ml
1 cup = ½ pint = 8 fl oz = 8 pony shots = 5 ⅓ shots = 250 ml
1 pint = 2 cups = 16 fl oz = 16 pony shots = 10 ⅔ shots = 500 ml
1 quart = 4 cups = 32 fl oz = 32 pony shots  = 21 ⅓ shots = 1000 ml