Have you ever wondered the difference between a shaken or stirred cocktail? Or maybe you know the difference but wonder, does it really matter?
Yes. It does.
Some mixed drinks should be shaken… others should be stirred… and others should be prepared a different way. If you pick the wrong technique, it might not taste the way it’s supposed to. So making a cocktail is one of those things that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. (Or at least, ordering right.)
Fortunately you don't need to be an expert bartender to learn to make mixed drinks. Here are some of the more common techniques you'll find, from easiest to more complicated.
Measuring isn’t a technique for how to build a drink, but it’s the very first thing you should do if you’re making one. Drink recipes tend to call for ingredients in specific amounts. If the ratio is off, the drink won’t taste right. Plus, you may feel the effects of the alcohol more quickly or more slowly.
A shot (serving of alcohol) is typically an ounce and a half. If you’re a bartender, you might be able to measure this in terms of how long it takes to pour something.
For the rest of us, or if you’ve already had a few, the best way to measure is with a jigger. Jiggers are typically double-ended, with one end holding an ounce of liquor, and the other end holding two ounces. So if you’re looking for 1.5 ounces exactly, some eyeballing will be required.
Now, assuming you've measure out your alcohol, here's what to do with it. (If you're missing any of the tools you need to mix your cocktail, click here to find out the basic supplies every home bar should have - plus some cool, more advanced tools.)
The easiest way to serve a drink. Neat is basically taking something from a bottle and putting it straight into a glass. You might order a shot or single-ingredient sipper this way. Generally, though, not too many mixed cocktails are served neat.
Neat can sometimes be confused with "straight up" and "up." If you order something "straight up," your bartender might assume you mean neat. But if you order it "up," they'll assume you want your drink chilled, which requires a little more prep work. Because it's easy to say what you don't mean, and it's easy for a bartender to misunderstand what you want, it's probably easiest to just stick with "neat" or "up."
Making mixed drinks with heavier ingredients, like juices, creams, and egg whites, requires shaking. If you stir a cocktail that should be shaken, you might find that each sip tastes different. Shaking ensures a more even mix of ingredients. More often than not, your shaker will have ice in it along with your ingredients. And more often than not, you’ll strain the ice out before you pour your mixture into a glass.
How long should you shake for? It depends what you’re making. A very quick shake will chill your shot, making it go down easier. One or two longer shakes is sufficient for some drinks, and many take around five seconds.
Everyone does it differently. Just be sure not to overdo it. Shaking adds air to your cocktail and changes the texture. Too much could change the overall integrity of your mixed drink.
This is the real way bartenders think James Bond should’ve ordered his martinis. Alcohol-forward drinks can be stirred and the ingredients will maintain the separation of flavors that they’re supposed to. And for drinks with lighter (as in less heavy) ingredients, you’ll end up with a lighter, cleaner mouthfeel than if you’d shaken your cocktail.
Don't just simply pour your ingredients in a glass and do a quick stir with the spoon, though. To make sure everything mixes properly, use a bar spoon, and twirl it from the top. Keeping the back of the spoon near the sides of the glass will create a cocktail that's not cloudy or diluted.
A twist isn’t how your drink is made, it’s a finishing touch. Though some think “twist” is synonymous with adding a spritz of juice, that’s incorrect. Instead, a peel (generally lemon, unless you or the recipe specifies otherwise) is literally twisted over the top of the drink and then often hung from the glass as a garnish.
The twisting release oils from the skin of the fruit, putting a final touch on your cocktail. Twisting works will for drinks with delicate notes. More intense flavors typically need more than a twist to make a difference in the taste.
Muddling is a little more advanced, but it’s a lot of fun and easy to get the hang of. Plus, it lets you enjoy fresh ingredients in your cocktail.
A muddler is basically like the pestle in your mortar-and-pestle set. You use it to smash ingredients that you want to add to your cocktail like fruit (to extract the juice) and herbs (to extract the oils). You can muddle ice to break it up, but do it last or it will dilute the other ingredients.
Classic cocktails that call for muddling include mojitos, caipirinhas, old fashioneds, and mint juleps.
Smoked cocktails have become popular as of late. Smoking a mixed drink, or any of the ingredients in it, definitely adds some complexity to the flavor. It can also turn what looks like a regular drink into a work of art.
There are a number of ways a cocktail can be smoked. If you’re looking to simply add a smoky flavor, it’s easy to add mezcal or peated scotch to your cocktail.
If you want actual smoke, you can smoke an herb(s) by burning it and inverting your cocktail glass over it while preparing the other ingredients for your drink. Or you could burn your garnish and blow it out just before serving.
The most common technique you'll see at bars is to use a smoking gun (and here you always thought that meant something else).
Not sure what ingredients you should be working with? Click here for a shopping list for your home cocktail bar.