Cocktail shaking vs stirring: everything you need to know

For many of us, the issue of whether and how to shake or stir a cocktail can be something of a mystery. What’s the difference between the two methods? Is there a right way to shake and to stir? What cocktails need what treatment - in fact, do they need either approach at all?

As with so much in life, the answer is: yes, there are some general rules to get the best out of your cocktails. Here is a brief breakdown of when, why and how to shake or stir your cocktails. Plus, check out some classic cocktail recipes using each technique!

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Why do we need to shake or stir a cocktail at all?

There are three main reasons for shaking or stirring a cocktail:

  • To combine the ingredients thoroughly and create a harmonious, consistent flavour

  • To chill the drink - you usually want the cocktail to be much cooler than the room-temperature ingredients going into it

  • To dilute the liquid - a little of this dilution is desirable for many cocktails, when done correctly; it helps create a well-integrated, smooth and flavourful drink

What are the differences between shaking and stirring a cocktail?

The first reason you might choose to shake a cocktail rather than stir it is simply to cool, mix and dilute the drink more quickly. More importantly, though, is the matter of bubbles!

When you energetically shake the drink, thousands of tiny air bubbles form and aerate the liquid. This results in the drink becoming cloudy in appearance and foamy in texture.

Stirring, on the other hand, should keep your cocktail clear.

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So when should I shake and when should I stir?

For the reasons above, cocktails that only use distilled spirits tend to be stirred. If you want a crystal-clear cocktail, stir.

Conversely, if you’re using opaque ingredients such as citrus juice, egg white, cream liqueurs, dairy products, jam or other similar ingredients, it’s time to shake.

If you’re making a cocktail for two or three people, especially one that uses lots of ingredients that all need thorough combining, it’s also probably better and less time-consuming to shake the cocktail up in a shaker, rather than spend ages stirring up individual serves!

(Occasionally, of course, you may not want or need to shake OR stir. Some cocktails are better built slowly in the glass and drunk with a straw; for example, if you want to keep a lovely visual blush effect in the glass.)

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How to use a cocktail shaker

We recommend using a stainless steel shaker (not glass or other material) as it keeps the drink nice and cold. Getting hold of a good little strainer is also a fab investment.

The basic technique for shaking your cocktail is simple:

  • If you’ve got a standard ‘cobbler’ shaker (just one ‘cup’, with a strainer and lid), add your liquid first, then lots of ice cubes

  • If you’ve got a Boston shaker, with two ‘cups’: put your drink ingredients into one half of the cocktail shaker. Add lots of fresh ice cubes* to the other part of the shaker and quickly turn it over and jam it on top of the half containing the liquid

  • Ensure the shaker is well sealed! Then, holding tightly, shake vigorously - don’t hold back here!

  • Shake for at least 12 seconds. Science bods have reported that the drink won’t get any more chilled or diluted after that amount of time. When the shaker frosts up, you’re ready!

  • The only times when you might want to shake for up to 30 seconds is when using particularly thick ingredients like marmalade, to ensure they are fully dissolved into the drink

  • Strain your liquid into your chosen - chilled glass.

  • Remember to use fresh ice in your glass (not the stuff already in the shaker) if the drink calls for it

A few extra tips:

  • Remember to only use the volume of ingredients for the number of drinks that the shaker can handle and adjust your recipe accordingly!

  • Make sure your ice is dry to the touch, i.e. straight out the freezer - wet or crushed ice will dilute your drink far too much

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5 classic gin cocktails that need shaking

Click on the name of the cocktail to see the full recipe!

  • Breakfast Martini - shaking will ‘melt’ the marmalade for a smooth, lump-free cocktail!

  • Clover Club - get shaking to generate that famously frothy texture!

  • Aviation - achieve that beautiful opaque purply appearance with a little elbow action

  • Singapore Sling - with eight ingredients, this cocktail needs a strong shake to combine them all!

  • Gin fizz - 10-12 seconds of shaking is all you need to create this classic cocktail!

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How to stir a cocktail

If you can, a bar spoon is a handy investment for your home bar. Otherwise, just use the longest spoon or kitchen implement you have available - ideally made from stainless steel, to stop ingredients from sticking to it (and it’s easier to clean!).

  • Use half a cocktail shaker or another glass (not the one you want to drink from) and fill it with medium-large ice cubes, then add your cocktail ingredients

  • Gently move the bar spoon around the rim of the glass for 30-40 seconds. Slow and steady is key, we don’t want to over-agitate it, get bubbles in there or spill any of the liquid.

  • Don’t stir your cocktail like you stir your tea spoon in your tea! The action is more like gently pushing the ice around the drink.

  • Strain your drink into your chilled glass.

  • If the drink needs ice, use fresh ice - this will melt more slowly (and therefore dilute your drink more slowly) than the ice you’ve already used to cool your drink (because it’s been jogged about a bit and will have started to melt already).

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4 classic gin cocktails that need stirring

  • Negroni - do use fresh ice in your glass (after stirring with ice separately) to keep this classic undiluted and delicious

  • Martini - HOTLY debated, but we like to stir over ice before serving in an ice-cold glass

  • Gin Old Fashioned - scroll down the list for the recipe for this fabulous alternative to the classic cocktail

  • Martinez - 20 seconds of stirring, four ingredients and ice - so little effort for so much reward!