Shaken Cocktails vs. Stirred Cocktails

Overview

The question of whether to shake or stir a cocktail is familiar to most through James Bond’s iconic Martini order: “shaken, not stirred". This suggests that shaking or stirring is based purely on personal preference, like ordering eggs over easy.  But that's not quite how it works with cocktails.  

 

Of course, you can have any drink made any way you want; it’s your drink.   But shaking and stirring have vastly differing effects on a cocktail’s texture and structure, as well as the rate that ice chills and dilutes it (you can read more about the importance of chilling and dilution on the Ice page).  So depending on the type of cocktail you're making, sometimes it will be better to shake it, and other times it'll be better to stir.  

 

In fact, there’s a widely accepted, and very convenient, rule for whether a drink should be shaken or stirred, and it broadly correlates with a cocktail’s general style.  You can see it outlined on the other side of the page.  Below we'll get into the details of why this rule is true (for the most part), which gets right to the heart of how cocktails work and how to think about them.  

 

We'll then see how bartenders often use this to rule separate cocktails into two broad categories: "shaken drinks" or "stirred drinks". 

What Happens When You Shake

The central element that sets shaking apart is the ice being forcefully churned back and forth.  This has multiple effects on a cocktail.   First and foremost, it chills and dilutes much faster than stirring does because there’s more contact generated between the cocktail and the ice.  You only need to shake for 8-10 seconds.

 

Shaking also has a substantial influence on a cocktail's texture.  The ice crashing end to end creates lots of tiny air bubbles in the cocktail, which give a lively, aerated consistency.  Its effects are evident in a visible layer of froth on the top of the drink.

 

But the most significant, if less obvious, impact that shaking has on a drink is how completely it blends the flavors together.   Instead of merely mixing the ingredients, it totally emulsifies and transfigures them into a unified flavor that can’t be picked apart as easily.  This creates a genuinely different flavor profile than stirring a cocktail does.  

 

Additionally, while either shaking or stirring will get most cocktail ingredients to mix, albeit in different ways, there are a some ingredients which are so contrasting that they can only be mixed through the force of shaking - eggs and heavier fruit purees are two prime examples.

What Happens When You Stir

Stirring is the polar opposite of shaking.  Instead of the ice being violently agitated, it’s gently pushed around to create as little disruption as possible. 

 

This, naturally, has the inverse effect of shaking.  It chills and dilutes more slowly, which means you'll have to stir for longer, typically 18-25 seconds.  And because no aeration is created, the texture of the drink is unaffected.  It remains smooth, even and silky.  It is also more concentrated, because it's not packed with air bubbles. 

 

Finally, while stirring a cocktail thoroughly mixes the ingredients, they still retain some of their distinctiveness, as opposed to shaking, which repurposes the ingredients into a new singular flavor.   In stirred cocktails it’s more like the components are layered on top of one another, so individual flavors stick out a bit more. 

Whether to Shake or Stir is All About the Style of the Drink 

Now that we know how shaking and stirring affect a cocktail differently, we can examine why the rule stating when to shake or stir works:

The Two Basic Styles of Cocktail: Shaken or  Stirred

In addition to being a simple indicator on how to mix a drink, another benefit of this rule is you can classify the bulk of all cocktails as either "shaken cocktails" or "stirred cocktails" because it corresponds so neatly to a cocktail’s basic style.   Making this distinction is not about the technique, but rather the category of the cocktail.    

Thinking of drinks this way can be helpful when looking at a bar’s cocktail menu.   If there’s fresh citrus juice or some other non-alcoholic ingredients, there’s a good chance it’s shaken, lighter and more refreshing.  If not, it’s probably stirred, stronger and more spirit-forward.

 

This can also help you decide what to make when you’re fixing drinks at home.  If you're looking for something to help you cool off on a hot summer day, go with a shaken drink. If you want something to sip in front of a fireplace, it should be stirred all the way.  Of course, this is a very broad way to look at it.  Both styles can be adapted to fit multiple scenarios.  

So, What if You Don't Follow the Rule?

I’m a big advocate of not taking things for granted.  So while this system has always made sense to me, I decided to try making cocktails doing the opposite of what it recommended, to see if it was really, truly, correct.  The control cocktails I chose were my favorites from each category: a Daiquiri, which contains lime juice so it is a traditional shaken drink, and a Manhattan, which is all booze - whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters - so it is classically stirred.  I made shaken and stirred versions of each.  For the most part, the results corroborated the rule. 

 

The stirred Daiquiri had a flat texture which while not ideal, was not tragic.   But the bigger problem was it had a sharp lime flavor poking out, that wasn’t well integrated with the rum, whereas the shaken Daiquiri tasted like a deliciously balanced fusion of rum, lime and sugar with a bright frothy texture to boot.    

 

In the case of the shaken Manhattan, the ingredients were too well integrated. The assertiveness of the whiskey was dulled while the fruitiness of the vermouth was brought forward to the point that it almost tasted juicy.  In the stirred Manhattan the whiskey was clearly out in front and soundly backed up by the vermouth, which I vastly preferred.  I should also note that I didn’t shake the Manhattan very hard, so the level of dilution was ok.  But any time a spirit-forward cocktail is shaken over-dilution is very possible.   And nothing is a bigger buzz kill than a watered-down drink.

Now Go Do Your Own Thing

Now that I’ve laid all that out, I’ll go ahead and contradict myself.  In the end, as I said above, you can do whatever you want.  This rule is still really just a guideline, and while based on my experience, I think it’s worth following in general, I don’t think it’s universal. 

 

For example, I prefer Caipirinhas stirred, which are essentially repurposed Daiquiris. I also think a lightly shaken Martini, if it has a healthy vermouth portion, may actually be preferable (Blasphemy, I know).  As I will say again and again all over this site, you are the bartender, so you make the call.

The Rule: When to Shake and When to Stir

 

  • Shake cocktails that contain any non-alcoholic ingredients, which will most commonly be citrus juice, such as a Margarita. These tend to be brighter, more refreshing and consumed more quickly.

 

  • Stir cocktails that contain only alcohol-based ingredients like spirits, vermouths and liqueurs, such as a Manhattan, and are more "boozy".   These drinks are stronger, spirit-forward, and sipped more slowly.

 
 

Shaken Drinks

Shaking is better for drinks with fresh ingredients because those cocktails tend to be lighter, citrusy and more refreshing.  They benefit from a more vibrant, aerated texture and because they go down easily, we have a propensity to drink them quicker, so the added chill and dilution is a good thing.   Above, in order, are a Daiquiri, Whiskey Sour and Tom Collins.

Stirred Drinks

Stirring is more appropriate for all alcohol-based cocktails because they are stronger and the spirits are more pronounced.   Stirring allows the spirit to remain the star of the show with the smooth, silky texture preserving more of its subtleties.  The drink will also have less dilution and no aeration, so it'll be denser and more bracing.   This is ideal for these types of cocktails because they are better when sipped and savored more slowly. Above is a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Martini.

A Daiquiri, shaken and stirred.

A Manhattan, stirred and shaken.

 
 
 
 

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tom@socialhourcocktails.com Brooklyn, NY

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