Shake or Stir: Which Cocktails Get Which Treatment and Why

a cocktail being shaken in a cocktail shaker and another cocktail being stirred in a mixing glass with a bar spoon

A quick rule of thumb, a few paragraphs of advice, and some notes on technique

Sure, the quality of your ingredients matters — nobody ever got a great Old Fashioned out of garbage liquor — but how a cocktail is mixed is as important as correctly measuring those ingredients.

Whether by stirring or shaking, mixing not only combines and chills ingredients but also introduces a little water into the drink, which is key to achieving the proper taste and texture. Done right, mixing blends the ingredients to create a single flavor — the signature taste of that cocktail.

Shaking 101: When to Shake

Stirring just doesn’t cut it with citrus-heavy drinks in particular. Anyone who’s had a margarita separate into limeade and straight tequila can confirm this; it’s a reliable disappointment, and frankly a little gross. 

Juices, purees, eggs, fake eggs: All of these ingredients need the more aggressive mixing we get by shaking, because shaking aerates the ingredients and produces the desired frothy texture. In the case of egg and aquafaba, shaking produces the foamy top characteristic of, say, a Ramos Gin Fizz. With a daiquiri, a good shake results in a slightly slushy consistency and a more complete unification of rum, sugar, and lime. It’s just not a Ramos Gin Fizz unless it’s a big, white frothy thing, and it’s not a daiquiri unless it’s been given a good hard shake.

Shaking 102: How to Shake

There are several types of shake — dry shake, wet shake, hard shake, whip shake — but unless you’re a professional bartender or geeking out super-hard on this stuff, you don’t need to bother with them. You just need to measure your ingredients properly, use enough ice, and shake nice and hard.

To start, measure the ingredients into the shaker. (You do measure your ingredients, right? Please say yes.)

Add ice cubes to fill the shaker about half- to three-quarters full. Use cubes if you have them; crushed or chipped ice will melt too much.

The most common question we get from home bartenders is “how long do I shake?” Let’s start with the short end of that: at least 7-10 seconds if you’re a hard, fast shaker, more like 15 otherwise. (Yes, we shake less than that in our videos. Chalk it up to artistic license.)

The longer and more vigorous the shake, the more air will mix with your ingredients, and the more ice will break off the cubes and melt into your cocktail. Both are desirable in cocktails like the whiskey sour and daiquiri, which taste better when they’re not face-meltingly strong and when the ingredients have fully blended to produce That Flavor. (You know it when you taste it.)

If the recipe involves egg white, go longer — 30 seconds is probably sufficient, and probably about as much as human arms can take. Proof tip: With cocktails like whiskey sours and Ramos Gin Fizzes, we like to drop in a single whole ice cube — one of those half-moons modern fridges make, or a cube about the size produced by a plastic ice cube tray, you know the kind — to agitate the egg whites. If we shake until the cube’s completely gone (i.e., we can’t hear it rattling around in the shaker anymore), we know we’ve shaken enough to get foam.

Stirring 101: When to Stir

Stirred cocktails shake out (ahem) into two categories: spirit-forward and topped.

Cocktails in the spirit-forward group tend to have only two to four ingredients, and all or almost all of those ingredients will be spirits. No juices, egg white, or any of that stuff. The Old Fashioned, manhattan, Negroni, and classic gin-vermouth martini are all stirred cocktails. They’re all booze, all the time, and they’re supposed to be that way, bless ‘em.

Cocktails that are topped with tonic, club soda, or sparkling wine are also stirred. The point of stirring  instead of shaking these is bubble preservation, of course, but many of these cocktails also have ingredients that are shaken first, then poured in the glass, then topped with something fizzy. The Tom Collins (or Proof Collins, if you're using our Citrus Sour syrup in place of lemon juice and simple syrup) is one of these: Shake the gin, citrus, and simple syrup, then strain over ice and top with club soda, then stir ever so gently (see the section on cocktails mixed in-glass for details).

Stirring 102: How to Stir in a Mixing Glass

Think of stirring as the polar opposite of shaking in terms of technique and purpose. You’re not trying to make bubbles or froth here; you’re gently coaxing the ingredients into combination. No sloshing or splashing, please, and no wild clanking of spoon against glass. Pretend you’re mixing cocktails in a library, if that helps.

Unless the cocktail is meant to be made in the glass (see the next section), do the mixing in a mixing glass. Measure (MEASURE!) ingredients into the mixing glass, then fill about half- to three-quarters full with ice cubes. 

Ever wondered why bar spoons have long, twisted handles? It’s to help move the back of the spoon along the inside of the glass like it’s trying to get to the aisle in a packed theatre. Don’t get weird about it, but don’t keep whacking the ice with the spoon, either. That’ll knock off tiny ice chips that will melt, over-watering the cocktail.

How long to stir? To really chill that cocktail, aim for 30 seconds. We don’t usually make it quite that long, more like 20 seconds, which is how long it takes to recite the Star Trek intro in full. (“These are the voyages …") However long you stir, do it right, and your stir will transfer minimal water from mixing glass to cocktail glass, ensuring you get that cocktail at the correct strength.

Stirring 103: the Finer Points of Stirring in a Cocktail Glass

Let’s say we’re mixing a Tom Collins. We’ve shaken the ice, Citrus Sour Proof Syrup, and gin. We’ve scooped fresh ice into our Collins glass and strained the cocktail over it, then poured club soda on top. We don’t want our first several sips to be all fizz and no flavor, though, right? We’re ready to stir.

What’s called for here is a “quick stir,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: Slide the spoon between ice and glass and give it a couple of turns around the inside of the glass, like we would in a mixing glass but a lot fewer turns. No vigorous zig-zagging like we’re making a glass of Tang. The goal here is to combine soda and spirits without flattening out the bubbles.

We add our garnish and we’re done. Look at those pretty bubbles climbing up the inside of the glass! Have we ever seen anything so refreshing? No, no we have not. Nice work, us.

A Quick Note About Ice — and Straining

As one might surmise from the directions, it takes two batches of ice to make a cocktail, whether shaken or stirred. The ice used for mixing has served its purpose; it’s also reduced in size, which primes it for melting like crazy. We need to get the cocktail away from that stuff, pronto. 

The procedure: Stir or shake the ingredients with ice, then use a strainer to separate the mixed, chilled cocktail from the mixing ice as you pour it over fresh ice (or into an empty glass, if the cocktail is to be served “up”).

For stirred cocktails, we recommend a julep strainer, which will hold back all of the ice from the mixing glass. A Hawthorne strainer (the kind with a spring on the front) will do if that’s what you’ve got, but the julep strainer fits the mixing glass better and thus blocks more ice.

Cheers, folks.