Cocktail 101: How to Stir a Cocktail


You may remember Michael Dietsch of A Dash of Bitters from his party-planning and drink-batching posts. Now he's getting back to basics with Cocktail 101. Take it away, Mike!

Jennifer Hess

Starting today, I'll be your guide to basic cocktail techniques for the home mixologist, bartender, bar chef, liqueur auteur, or whatever the hell you choose to call yourself.

We'll start off with stirring. After all, little else can happen to a drink until you've mixed it, and stirring is the technique at the heart of many of our most long-lived cocktails.

The Mechanics of Mixing, Chilling, and Dilution

We have three main goals when mixing a cocktail:

  • Blending the ingredients
  • Chilling the drink to its proper temperature
  • Diluting the drink to its proper level of dilution

Though it may be easy to forget, water is an essential ingredient in any cocktail, and when you prepare a cocktail to order, you introduce water into the drink during the mixing process. As the ice melts into the cocktail, by the very nature of physics, it chills the drink. This is an important point: there's no chilling without dilution.

Dave Arnold, of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, goes into much greater detail about the cocktail science of dilution on the blog Cooking Issues.

Shaking vs. Stirring

Shaking is a more efficient way to chill and dilute a drink, simply because the ice rattles around more violently in the shaker and therefore breaks down more quickly, releasing its water into the drink.

That doesn't mean, though, that shaking is always the proper method. Shaking causes drinks to foam up, which sometimes results in a cocktail that... well, just doesn't look very good.


So, when is it best to shake and when is it best to stir? Ultimately, that's up to you. Here's the rule of thumb I follow:

  • Shake any drink that contains juice, dairy, or eggs. These ingredients generally look better in a glass and have a better mouthfeel when they're foamy. Think of how satisfying whipped cream and meringue taste and feel.
  • Stir any drink that is made from just spirits—including the Manhattan, Martini, Rob Roy, or most variations on the Brooklyn.

Across the Internet at the Cocktail Spirit, Seattle cocktail expert Robert Hess has produced a video that shows the visual differences between shaking and stirring a Manhattan. The shaken Manhattan is foamy and frothy and looks like it's survived a rough ride through heavy rapids in a leaky boat. The stirred Manhattan is as clear and reposed as a Zen monk. I know which one I'd rather drink.

Enough Lecturing, Dad. How Do I Stir?

It's pretty easy to master, but it takes a special technique and a special type of spoon.

What you'll need:

  • One mixing glass or tin (I prefer glass; it insulates the cold liquid better than metal does and thus chills the drink more quickly and thoroughly)
  • One bar spoon

What you'll do:

  1. First, chill both your mixing glass and your serving glass. You can store them for a short time in the freezer or a longer time in the fridge, or you can fill them with a mix of ice and water and set aside for 5 minutes.
  2. Dump the icewater, if using, from the mixing glass. Fill about two thirds full with fresh ice.
  3. Pour in your ingredients over the ice.
  4. Take your spoon between your thumb and your first two fingers of your dominant hand. The shaft of the spoon should be between your index and middle finger. Insert it into the glass until the bowl of the spoon touches the bottom.
  5. Keeping your arm and fingers still, use your wrist to turn the spoon in the glass. The spoon, you'll find, will spin about in your fingers on its own axis. Use your index finger to pull the spoon toward you (from the twelve o'clock position to the six o'clock) and your middle finger to push it away. The ice and liquid will move about the glass.
  6. Stir for about 60 seconds.
  7. Dump icewater, if using, from the serving glass. Strain stirred cocktail into serving glass. Garnish with whatever ingredient is called for in the recipe.

Want to see stirring in action? I knew I was meant for the stage. Here you go:

In the next couple of weeks, we'll cover shaking, straining, zesting, and other fun techniques. Class dismissed!