This post is in many ways a companion to the Mixing Theory post. While that one dealt with the theory behind mixing drinks, today we’re going to look at the practicalities of the various methods we use. Except that is, for shaking. As the primary, go-to method used for mixing cocktails, shaking really needed its own post.
So here we’re going to consider the various other methods we might use: Stirring; Building; Churning; Muddling; and Layering. Plus a few minor effects or technical terms. Think of this post as part technical manual, part glossary.
However, I’m not going to go into too much detail in my descriptions. I am a writer, and as such I use words as my primary method of communicating ideas. Backed up with photos. Videos, however, are not something I have embraced. This is my nature. But a lot of these concepts can be more easily explained by showing rather than telling. So if you’re having trouble understanding the mechanics then go find videos showing you how to stir etc. There are plenty out there to choose from.
Which of these various methods we choose to use is dependent upon either our aims or circumstances. For example, when making a Mojito circumstances demand that we churn the drink. But whether I shake, stir or simply build a Tom Collins is a choice I can make.
Note also that some while some of these methods are mutually exclusive, many are complementary. For example I could choose to stir or shake a Cosmopolitan, but not both. Yet by its nature a Caipirinha is both built and churned.
Stirring is pretty self explanatory. You put your ingredients in a container with ice and then you…stir them. Usually with a bar spoon or a dedicated stirrer to be left in the drink, but a straw works just as well. While many techniques for stirring have been proposed by self proclaimed experts, the science behind all stirring remains pretty much the same. Stirring mixes a drink more gently than shaking does. This mean it takes longer to reach the Equilibrium of Temperature associated with chilling and dilution, but still reaches it all the same.
Stirring is typically done in two ways:
First, it can be performed in a dedicated mixing glass or tin, followed by straining the drink out to be served straight up. In this case I need to stir it long enough for it to reach its Equilibrium of Temperature before straining. Which takes about 45 seconds to a minute on average.
Second, it can be done in conjunction with building a drink. For example I’ll build a Negroni by pouring its three ingredients into the glass I intend to serve it in and adding ice. But then I really should stir it at least a little to mix the ingredients before I garnish it. Though I don’t need to stir for long as the drink can reach its Equilibrium of Temperature on its own.
Since stirring is slower than shaking we typically only do it when there is a good reason to. In conjunction with building a drink is one. Making large quantities of a cocktail for a party is another. And reducing the aeration of a drink during mixing is a third. This concept comes into play when making a Dry Martini.
Building is simply the process of making a cocktail in the glass we’re going to serve it in. Depending upon the individual cocktail it is usually coupled with other methods like stirring or churning.
There are two main reasons why we might want to do this: efficiency; and because the style of cocktail demands it.
For example I could make a Dark and Stormy or a Negroni in a mixing glass and then pour it into the glass I intend to serve it in. But there is no special need to do this and I’m just making my life harder. Instead making the cocktail in the glass I’m going to serve it in and mixing it along the way is faster. So why not?
Some cocktails, however, pretty much require to be built. Anything served over crushed ice needs to be built. Because if you were to shake or stir (and so chill/dilute) it first then the further dilution of the quickly melting crushed ice would make the drink so weak and watery it would lose its punch.
Churning is a variant of stirring where the aim is to vertically homogenize a cocktail. The most common example of this is when making a cocktail like a Mojito or Caipirinha. In both of these you begin by muddling pieces of lime and some form of sugar. If making a fruity variant then you may also muddle some fruit, and Mojitos will see some mint leaves added too.
Then you’ll add crushed ice and other liquid ingredients. You need to mix these together. But you can’t shake them and regular stirring will just not be sufficient. So we churn them. This is best performed with a bar spoon, but any long enough spoon should do. First slide it down the inside of the glass. Then tilt the head to the opposite side of the glass and raise it back up. This should have the effect of dragging any solid matter at the bottom upwards. Once you’ve reached the top, pull the spoon back to its insertion point and repeat.
This is typically done quickly and vigourously, so the technique involved is not always clear. But all you’re trying to do here is homogenize the drink. And since you’re dealing with solid, visible matter it is easy to see when you’ve achieved this. Note that it is wise to hold a napkin over the top of the glass as you churn its contents. Otherwise those contents may end up all over the table next to your glass.
Muddling is the process of smashing up any solid ingredients we use to make cocktails. So that they can release their juice or flavour into a cocktail. Without doing this you can’t really make good use of solid ingredients.
Muddling is typically performed in conjunction with either building or shaking a drink. As in the Mojito example above, muddling then often requires churning to drag the solid ingredients into the rest of the drink to properly homogenize it.
Alternatively, if we don’t want our finished product to contain solid material then we are more likely to shake after muddling. A good hard shake is excellent for further smashing up solid matter and efficiently mixing it with the rest of the ingredients. It can then be strained out. Fruit Daiquiris of various types use this method.
What should you use to muddle? Well you can buy custom made muddlers if you choose. Or you could use something like a rolling pin. Either way I recommend using something with a flat end for ease of cleaning.
How much force you need to apply depends on what you’re dealing with. Soft fruits like raspberries or blackberries require barely any muddling. Tougher stuff like root ginger needs a hard pounding.
Just be careful when attempting to muddle something you’re building. It is easy to break the glass – more likely at the top by clipping it than at the base. Comparatively, anything you plan to shake is likely to be tougher. Be it a Boston glass made of hardened glass or a metal tin.
Layering, sometimes called floating, is a situation specific technique we only occasionally use. Naturally enough it is designed to create layered drinks. The idea behind these is that you either sip one drink through a layer of another. Or you drink it all in one go so that the distinct flavours mix in your mouth. This is sometimes used to create Sweet and Sour cocktails.
The technique used is pretty simple, though I’d highly recommend using a bar spoon. This is what it was designed for. The spiral grooves down the shaft of the spoon both guide a liquid down evenly and slow its velocity. While the circular disc at the base allows it to spread out slowly and evenly. As shown, hold the spoon straight with the flat end touching the layer you wish to float on. Pour slowly, and gently pull the spoon up as your layer forms to keep it at the top of the forming layer.
What floats on what? That it the big question. The two factors are alcohol and sugar content. In general the higher the alcohol content the more a liquid floats. While the higher the sugar content the more a liquid sinks. So in a B52, for example, the sweetest liqueur forms the bottom layer while the strongest spirit forms the top layer.
There are a few more minor methods or techniques we use I’ll touch on briefly.
Sunrises or Sunsets occur when you add a little of a heavier ingredient without mixing it in. In the classic Tequila Sunrise this is a little grenadine poured into a tequila and orange juice mix. The grenadine sinks, creating the sunrise effect. A similar effect is formed when we Drizzle something onto a cocktail to create a bleed through effect, as for a Bramble.
Straining is the process of removing the ice from a shaken or stirred drink as we serve it. Often with a Hawthorne or Julep strainer. Double Straining then uses a tea strainer to remove any solid matter.
When using egg white we often Dry Shake a drink. Check out the egg white post to learn why.
Some recipes often call for a cocktail to be Topped Up with a particular mixer. This is usually either so we can adjust the cocktail’s strength ourselves. Or because the mixer is fizzy, and so can’t be shaken. As for a Long Island Iced Tea. Note, however, that we will typically add the mixer in stages rather than all at once at the end as this makes it harder to mix in properly.
Finally, a cocktail can be Blended. This involves sticking it into a blender with some ice and switching the machine on. It is how we make frozen drinks like Frozen Margaritas. Note that the quantity of ice you add will determine the final texture of the cocktail. Just a little ice and you’ll get a slushy cocktail. Use a lot of ice and you’ll get something closer to a sorbet.