Without a doubt, shaking is the primary technique used to make cocktails in the modern era. The standard method we automatically apply. True, there are plenty of other techniques and methods used to mix drinks. But whenever we choose not to shake a cocktail, we have to have a very good reason.
It’s time to look at why shaking is the method for mixing cocktails.
Before reading this post I highly recommend you to refresh your memory of the Mixing Theory and Thermodynamics of Ice posts. I will be referencing topics explained more fully in each post to make my case.
But in short, in the Mixing Theory post I stated that there are three aims in mixing a cocktail: homogenization; chilling; and dilution.
And in the Ice post I introduced the idea of the Equilibrium of Temperature. That when you put ice in a liquid the temperature of both will swiftly move towards each other until they equalize. And that this typically results in the melting of ice and therefore the dilution of the liquid.
The reason why we shake cocktails is simple. Shaking is the most efficient method of achieving our three primary aims when mixing cocktails.
Efficiency is everything when making cocktails. Whether you’re making drinks at home for thirsty guests or working as a professional bartender. The aim is always to produce cocktails of the highest quality possible in the least time possible. To achieve this you must maximize your efficiency. So when it takes you twice as long to stir a drink than to shake it, you need a very good reason not to shake it.
As stated, one of the three primary aims when mixing a cocktail is homogenizing the component ingredients. Taking them from distinct elements with different levels of viscosity and different textures to one new, consistent liquid. For most cocktails this can be achieved very quickly and easily with minor agitation. For example a Cosmopolitan consists of only four liquid ingredients. So while there is not necessarily any specific need to shake one, there is also no good reason not to. So the efficiency of shaking wins out.
However, some ingredients require more force to properly enter solution. For example, when I get around to talking about Dessert Cocktails you’ll find some recipes containing Mascarpone cheese. Trying to stir that into solution is practically an exercise in futility. But the extra force produced by shaking allows it to homogenize with ease.
Equilibrium of Temperature
The other major aspect of mixing cocktails is their chilling and dilution. We want to chill them down to ice cold as quickly as possible and we use ice to achieve this. Dilution is a trade off for this chilling effect. When we place liquid and ice in contact the heat exchange between the two draws the temperature of each one towards that of the other. Once their temperature equalizes we state that an Equilibrium of Temperature has been reached. No further chilling will occur, but dilution will, at a reduced rate. Our cocktail is now ready to serve.
So, unless we have a good reason not to, we try to attain this Equilibrium of Temperature as quickly as possible. It’s more efficient. So it speeds up our cocktail creation.
Achieving an Equilibrium of Temperature depends on heat exchange between the surface layer of ice and the liquid directly adjacent to it. Heat exchange between these layers is fast, but between that layer of now chilled liquid and the rest of the liquid is slow. To speed up this process we need to move the liquid around, so we continually push a fresh layer of liquid into thermal contact with the ice. This is the reason why stirring a drink results in faster dilution than simply leaving it alone.
Effectively, the more we agitate an iced liquid, the quicker heat exchange between the two will occur. And the faster we will reach an Equilibrium of Temperature. So, since shaking results in greater agitation than stirring, it should come as no surprise that shaking results in us reaching the Equilibrium of Temperature faster than stirring. At which point, the cocktail is ready.
How much faster?
When we shake our example Cosmopolitan, an Equilibrium of Temperature is reached in ten to fifteen seconds. Stirring the same cocktail it would take more like forty five seconds. That’s a huge difference. Bottom line is that unless you have a good reason not to shake a cocktail, you should shake it.
One more factor to consider when deciding whether or not to shake is aeration. The more vigourously we agitate a cocktail when mixing, the more we aerate it. That is, the more air from the atmosphere we force into the liquid. For the vast majority of cocktails, this simply doesn’t matter one way or another. So it’s not a factor considered in our choice of mixing method. But for a few it really does matter, so we should be aware of it.
The biggest instance when we actively want to aerate our cocktail as much as possible is any time we try to create foam. It not merely the force of shaking which creates a foam in cocktails like an Espresso Martini or Singapore Sling. It is the air being forced into liquid by that shaking. You can stir an Espresso Martini for several minutes if you like – you’ll still get no foam.
But what if excessive aeration of a cocktail is actually damaging? This is extremely rare, but can occur when making a Dry Martini with a truly excellent gin. Such quality of gin is full of delicate organic compounds which produce the subtle flavours which makes the Dry Martini such an incredible drink. But as these organic compounds are oxidized, their flavour is largely neutralized. So it makes sense to minimize the aeration of the cocktail in this case. Hence why we generally stir Martinis rather than shaking them.
There are a few other reasons why we would choose not to shake a cocktail. And they are typically all recipe specific and obvious.
First, there is no need to shake any cocktail served over crushed ice. Like a Mojito, Caipirinha or Bramble. Due to its hugely increased surface area to volume ratio, crushed ice chills cocktails almost instantly and dilutes them significantly more than regular ice. So we may shake a cocktail and then strain it over cubed ice just fine. But to do the same over crushed ice would result in too much dilution.
Similarly, if we can build a cocktail (make it in the same glass we serve it in) without compromising its quality then we should. Because building is an even more efficient method than shaking. Just pour stuff in a glass, add ice, give it a little stir and done. Since it will simply stay in that glass it doesn’t really matter how long it takes to reach its Equilibrium of Temperature. Of course, most cocktails can’t be made this way without compromising their quality. But some can. Good examples of them include Alcoholic Powerhouses like the Negroni and the Godfather.
Finally, there are the cocktails which make use of fizzy liquids as mixers. Try to shake these and they may explode all over you. These include Long and Serious cocktails like the Cuba Libra, using cola, and the Dark and Stormy and Moscow Mule, using ginger beer (or ale). These are typically built. However, I’ll sometimes use a half-and-half type method where I shake everything but the fizzy mixer and then use it to top up. The Long Island Iced Tea and Tom Collins use this method.
Champagne Cocktails are also not shaken for the same reason. Sometimes these will be built, though occasionally I’ll use a Champagne Cocktail specific method instead.
House Parties and Events
As I have stated, shaking is the most efficient method for mixing cocktails in the vast majority of situations. Typically we would only not shake a cocktail in specific cases and for specific reasons, as outlined above. But that is going under the assumption that we’re making cocktails one at a time. Or a round of a few at a time at most.
However, when we are instead making cocktails many at a time then the dynamic of efficiency changes dramatically. This is often the case for events or for house parties. In these cases it may make far more sense to make cocktails in larger quantities, often by the jug or even the vat. Clearly, you physically cannot shake such large quantities. So you have to adapt your techniques. For example by giving a vigourous stir with a wooden spoon.
However, you are also clearly restricted in the types of cocktails you can offer in these situations. Anything that really needs a hard shake to produce a good foam is simply not an option in these cases. So you will have to choose your cocktails carefully.