Thursday Night Loaded: Shaken Or Stirred?

On the subject of shaking versus stirring a cocktail, the standard line is this: drinks involving fruit juices, eggs or syrups must be shaken; those containing liquor and vermouth should only ever be stirred.

However, in the mixing of drinks, as in any of life’s pursuits, there are those who would flaunt the rules. But before we delve into this controversy, let’s take a minute to examine the role either stirring or shaking plays in the making of a cocktail.

There are, of course, two main and obvious purposes: mixing and chilling. You would not have much of a mixed drink if you simply allowed its constituent elements to sit in the glass layered like the pages of an abandoned manuscript. Like wind through a study window, the action of shaker or bar spoon invigorates the liquors, swirls them to life.

Also, a cocktail — and this cannot be stressed enough — must be glacially cold and to achieve this it must inevitably come in contact with ice.

Now, there are those who would dispute the necessity of ice, saying it’s unmanly to risk weakening one’s spirits by mingling them with melt water. I’ve acquaintances who will keep their liquors in a deep freeze then blend these sub-zero liquids into truly potent concoctions and admittedly, handing out raw slugs of frigid booze to your guests can liven a room up quite quickly. Too often, though, with so much raw spirit on the loose, an evening’s frolics will come to an early — possibly tear-stained — end.

Thing is, dilution is essential to a cocktail as it smooths out the flavours and reduces the potency just enough so that a number of drinks may be enjoyed before inebriation works its mischeif on the senses.

In fact, Thomas Mario (who, you will find, I refer to often) advises that two to two-and-a-half ounces of liquor poured into a shaker should grow to four ounces when poured into a glass.

That seems like rather a lot of water — a touch too much for my taste — but let’s allow it to flow under the bridge and tackle now the question of stirring over shaking.

As mentioned above, when you are bringing together liquids of wildly differing viscosities — fruit juices, egg whites, syrups, sweet or creamy liqueurs — the consensus is fairly clear. Shaking is the way to go.

It’s only when you are mixing base liquors with a vermouth or some similar spirit that there is debate. And in this, it is around the martini, last week’s featured cocktail, that debate rages the strongest.

Savoy bartender Harry Craddock, for instance, had this to say on preparing a martini:

Shake the shaker as hard as you can: don’t just rock it: you are trying to wake it up, not send it to sleep.

And he had an ally in none other than Ian Fleming who insisted on having his martini’s “properly aerated” and went on to create James Bond of “shaken, not stirred” fame.

Now, leaving aside the author’s personal preferences, I’d argue there is a very good reason why a secret agent would order a shaken martini: shaking dilutes a cocktail much more quickly than stirring, thus even a perfunctory jiggle of a cocktail shaker by an inept barman will do more to mellow alcohol’s kick than a limp twirl of a bar spoon. That’s a perhaps life-saving dram of wisdom to a globe-trotting, master spy. When matching wits with a Blofeld or Dr No, while you want the clarity of mind that comes of meditating upon a martini’s silver purity, you do not want your reflexes numbed by an overstiff drink.

Of course, few of us, regrettably, are master spies and thus we do not have to choose our mode of cocktail preparation with the machinations of a super villain in the back of our minds.

We can instead turn to the lore left for us by the sagacious drinkers of ages past such as Somerset Maugham who had this to say on the subject:

Martinis should never be shaken. They should always be stirred so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of each other.

And then there is Bernard DeSoto,

This perfect thing is made of gin and vermouth. They are self-reliant liquors, stable, of stout heart; we do not have to treat them as if they were plover’s eggs.

The final word on the whole shaking versus stirring debate, though, certainly must go to Kingsley Amis whose drinking fluency, I’d wager, has yet to be bested and thus whose opinion on this must be respected,

The most important and controversial of your non-needs is a cocktail shaker. With all respect to James Bond, a martini should be stirred, not shaken. The case is a little different with drinks that include the heavier fruit-juices and liqueurs, but I have always found that an extra minute’s stirring does the trick well enough. The only mixture that does genuinely need shaking is one containing eggs, and if that is your sort of thing, then clear off and buy youself a shaker any time you fancy. The trouble with the things is that they are messy pourers and, much more important, they are far too small, holding half a dozen drinks at the outside. A shaker about the size of a hatbox might be worth pondering, but I have never seen or heard of such.

A shaker the size of a hatbox. Yes. I can see the utility in that.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

7 thoughts on “Thursday Night Loaded: Shaken Or Stirred?”

  1. Paul,

    Very well written and entertaining post. I will agree that most cocktails should be stirred with your noteable exceptions listed above (I’ll leave last weeks debate there).

    Yet I would suggest that a lot of people don’t know this and bastardize their drinks with shaking in order to achieve that critial cold temperature and subtle mix of water from the ice into the drink.

    What’s your experience been for the amount of people who know when to stir vs shake?

  2. Barb, you correct Paul’s ‘flaunt’, but you let TS get away with ‘amount’ when clearly s/he meant ‘number’? I just don’t know anymore.

  3. Flaunt or flout? Amount or number? The real question should be to one’s sobriety at the time of writing. I will not speak for TS; but, for myself, I turn once again to Uncle Kingsley, “After half a dozen large dry martinis and a proper lunch, my customary skill with the commas and semicolons becomes a little eroded.”

    It would seem punctuation is the least of my worries.

    Or, if I may be allowed to take another tack, perhaps my faithful readers grant me too little credit. I submit that this column is conceived as a grand flaunting of the rules of good drinking so that it may appear a beacon to those others who feel themselves bogged down in a morass of flouters. Stir that dash of post-hoc rationalization into your next perusal of the offending sentence and it will read just fine.

    And if it doesn’t, stir harder.

  4. TS: I’ve seen professional barkeeps who would shake a coffee with two creams if given half a chance.

    I think stirring is falling by the wayside for a couple reasons. First, cocktail shakers, being called what they are, have forever linked shaking with cocktails in the public’s mind. I remember, back in those benighted days when I considered wine a cultured beverage, upon receiving my first cocktail kit I merely looked quizzically upon the lengthy bar spoon it included. “Where is the olive jar that would require this?” I wondered before setting it aside for many years.

    Second, I think shaking is ascendant as really there are few sounds as satisfying as that machine-gun rattle of ice in a cocktail shaker. Does anything better say, “Set your cares aside,” than that “rack-a-rack-a-rack-a”?

    Considering that these are more sober times and if, as some in the “blog-o-sphere” have suggested, we are more concerned with the trappings of cocktail preparation than we are with appreciating the drinks themselves, then perhaps in shaking every drink in the bar manual we’re hoping to maximize the spectacle, the joyous clatter, from the modest quantity of cocktails it’s considered seemly to mix in an evening.

    Meanwhile, the thing that inclined me to hone my stirring skills, was the whole transition from playboy bachelor to dad-with-skeletons-in-his-closet. Unless you enjoy the company of a toddler at cocktail hour, stirring is the shrewd choice when preparing a clandestine, midnight martini.

  5. Paul,

    Ah, it wasn’t just my experience that most barkeeps that I’ve seen work to shake…well…everything! I agree there seems to be an excessive focus on ‘cool looking glasses and sharkers’ at the expense of enjoying the drink.


    “Number” would be correct. I was thinking of drinks while writing and hence wrote ‘amount.’ Consider it a freudian slip that expressed my inner desire for a drink.

    PS – I’m a ‘he’.

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