Margaritas are shaken, Martinis are stirred, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been since time immemorial. The question is: why? For the definitive on when cocktails should be stirred versus shaken, we asked two bartenders to divulge the ‘rules’ behind each method, offer technique tips, and share four lip-smacking recipes to try at home…

Chances are, unless you’re a bartender – or James Bond – you’ve rarely given much thought to the technicalities of cocktail methodology. If the recipe instructs you to “shake”, you shake, and if it says “stir”, you stir, without ever really pausing to consider what the process brings to the drink, or why you’re doing one rather than the other. 

“Both shaking and stirring will ensure the individual ingredients are well-mixed, and so the overall cocktail has the right balance from start to finish,” says Patrick Pistolesi, founder of Drink Kong in Rome – one of the World’s 50 Best Bars – and head of mixology at NIO Cocktails.

Opening a bar during the COVID-19 pandemic

The team from Swift in Shoreditch

Both processes also cool the cocktail, Pistolesi continues, although shaking gets the job done slightly quicker. “Shards of ice break off and melt faster as the surface area of the ice is increased,” he explains. “Aside from cooling, the other main purpose of either shaking or stirring with ice is to dilute the cocktail to deliver the perfect drink.”

If both approaches mix the ingredients, dilute the drink, and cool the liquid – albeit at different speeds – when does one method take precedence over the other? It’s all to do with the tiny air bubbles that form during the shaking process.  “Shaking aerates the cocktail, which changes both its texture and its taste,” says Pistolesi.

Those bubbles are the reason a stirred drink will be crystal-clear, while a shaken drink will be cloudy, or at least opaque. Therefore, drinks made with ‘clear’ ingredients, like neat spirits and liqueurs, are typically stirred, while those with already ‘cloudy’ ingredients – such as citrus, syrup, fresh juice, egg whites, cream or milk – ought to be shaken. 

One of the most important (and oft-forgotten) ingredients? Ice. “Put simply, high quality ice delivers a better-tasting cocktail,” says Pistolesi. “Experience with different types of ice is important, as the quality of the ice can also affect the time required to shake or stir.” Good ice (very good blog post on the subject) starts with quality filtered water. You don’t want your ice to melt too quickly or it will have too much dilution, so use it straight from the freezer and avoid that ready-made ice with holes in.

The shake

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’re going to need a shaker. But which one? “The Boston shaker is the classic two-piece, one part usually stainless steel and the other glass,” says Pistolesi. “This is really great for a sour drink that needs a lot of froth, as the shaker is pretty large and can contain more liquid.”

Alternatively, you could opt for the classic three-piece or ‘continental’ shaker. “This holds a smaller amount of liquid than the Boston shaker, will cool faster and deliver the right amount of air in the drink,” he continues. “I use it mostly for three-ingredient cocktails, for example a White Lady or a Daiquiri.”

In terms of technique: add ice into the shaker first, don’t overfill the vessel with liquid, and opt for a longer, harder shake when using viscous ingredients or those that don’t mix easily, Pistolesi says. Remember, you don’t need to shake as long you would stir – “anywhere between 15 and 20 seconds should be about right,” he adds.

Whatever you do, don’t risk an overshake. “It could make your cocktail watery and gritty with ice shards,” explains Mia Johansson, managing partner of London’s Bar Swift – also one of the World’s 50 Best Bars – and creator of cocktail delivery platform Speakeasy At Home.

“There is no way of perfectly timing it because it has to do with what is in your tin – and how much, more precisely,” she continues. “Make sure you fill your tin with plenty of ice and try to listen to the sound of the shake, when it goes from clunky to broken up it should be just perfect.” 

Ready to give it a crack? You’ll find two shaken classics from Johansson below:

Adnams Rye Malt Whisky Sour cocktail

A Whisky Sour made with Adnams Rye Malt and served on the rocks

Whiskey Sour 

3 parts whiskey (Black & Gold bourbon)
1 part lemon
1 part simple syrup or honey
1 egg white (or 25ml aquafaba)

Give it a good shake with plenty of ice in your tin. Serve straight up in a glass or over ice if you prefer. Garnish with a lemon wedge or cherry. For an extra touch, try adding a dash of Amaretto – 0.5 parts is enough.

French

The French 75!

French 75: 

3 parts Bathtub gin
1 part lemon
2 parts simple syrup
Sparkling wine to top

Shake in a tin with plenty ice, double strain into a coupe or flute and top with the sparkling wine. Garnish with cherry or lemon twist. For a twist, add 0.5 parts of elderflower cordial.

The stir

For this method, you can use your cocktail shaker or a stirring glass – either works fine. “Again, make sure you have plenty of ice, as you want to be able to control the dilution,” says Johansson. “The more ice you have, the more time you’ve got.” Give it “a good stir until you feel the ice has lost its edges and feels smoother,” she says, “usually around 20 to 30 seconds”. Pause and taste it to see if it is cold enough. Texture-wise, it should be “silky but still packed with flavour.”

Pistolesi, meanwhile, advocates for a longer stir. “You’d need to spend upwards of a minute and a half stirring a cocktail to achieve the same cooling and dilution as 15 to 20 seconds of shaking,” he says. In terms of method, “the simplest way is to dunk the spoon in and out of the drink – once the ice and ingredients have been added – while twirling the spoon.” Alternatively, you could use a Japanese method called the Kaykan stir. “The objective is to move the ice and the liquid as a single body and hence to avoid aerating the drink,” Pistolesi explains.

The perfect stir requires a little common sense, so keep an eye on the drink to make sure it doesn’t dilute too much. Get your stir on with the recipes below, again from Johansson:

The classic Boulevardier

Boulevardier

2 parts whiskey (Black & Gold bourbon)
1 part Campari
1 part sweet vermouth 

Stir over ice and serve on the rocks. Garnish with an orange peel. For an extra touch, add a dash of cherry brandy, no more than 0.5 parts.

Stinger made with H by Hine Cognac

Stinger

4 parts H by Hine Cognac
1 part Giffard crème de menthe 

Stir and serve straight up in a coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist. Perfect classic for a Christmas tipple.