How to Shake a Cocktail – Essential Techniques

How to Shake a Cocktail – Essential Techniques
The proper technique and science behind one of mixology's essential skills.
How to shake a cocktail

Alex Black is an accomplished bartender at some of Vancouver’s most celebrated cocktail bars.

“Now a Manhattan you always shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.” – The Thin Man (1934).

If you read our article on proper cocktail stirring technique, you’ll have already realized that none of these drinks should be shaken, but if they were to be, would there be a right way and a wrong way to do so? Let’s find out.

The act of shaking a drink seems simple enough. But once you dig deeper and realize what’s actually happening inside that shaker tin you can use that knowledge to your advantage. We’re here to ensure you’re employing the appropriate shaking techniques for your cocktails resulting in the tastiest beverages for you and your guests to enjoy.

We mentioned before in our stirring article that you stir a cocktail to achieve two things: Chilling and dilution. We do that with the intention of having the clearest drink with the silkiest smoothness. With shaking you’re looking to not only chill and dilute but you want the drink’s ingredients to be fully combined with one another and the resulting drink to be light and well aerated. With stirred drinks there’s no need for shaking because the liquid’s densities are all similar enough that they are easily soluble in one-another.

You break out the shaker when this isn’t the case.

Almost any drink with a juice, syrup, egg or cream needs to be shaken, although there are a few exceptions to this rule. Drinks with a minute amount of juice or syrup can be stirred to great effect (like when I make a Journalist or a Sazerac) but the general rule of thumb is if it’s an opaque ingredient, it gets shaken. I’ll assume you’ve already read through the article on stirring and my piece on great ice so you’ve got the basics down for the thermodynamics of what ice does in your drink, with shaking it’s not much different, it just does it much, much faster.

How fast you ask?

Good question, and there’s hard science to answer this. A vigorous shake will result in a drink that’s between -5°C/23°F and -8°C/18°F in about 12 seconds, compared to about two minutes if that drink was stirred. So you can imagine what shaking for 30 seconds would yield… exactly the same. It’s completely counter-intuitive but a longer shake doesn’t result in a colder drink, a drink plateaus at about the 8°C/18°F mark and reaches its thermal equilibrium, so asking that bartender to shake for longer isn’t going to result in much more than a sore shoulder at the end of the night.

As I touched on before, aside from chilling and diluting, shaking adds texture to a drink through aeration. You see when you’ve got all that air banging around inside that container with all that liquid, that air, just like the rest of the ingredients in that shaker, gets mixed right into your drink. More often than not you can see this in the tiny bubbles occupying space at the surface of your cocktail. Some ingredients, like cream or egg, will produce a stable, formidable foam, while others like lemon or lime juice result in tiny bubbles that quickly disappear in your glass. Lemon and lime aren’t usually thought of as foaming agents but there’s little bits of plant inside that juice, like pectin, that helps it froth.

Types of Cocktail Shakers

There are few things as frustrating to me as a bartender than seeing a poorly executed shake, as I said, it’s easy to do and it takes no longer than 15 seconds of effort. Yet time and time again I cringe as I watch some uninformed bartender dump ingredients into a shaker; seal it; and bounce it up and down pathetically two or three times without so much as rotating the shaker before dumping the contents into a glass. If you’ve never had a great daiquiri in your life, it’s because it’s usually being served by one of these folks. Thankfully the art of shaking has become a much discussed topic in recent years.

We’ve examined the best way to shake and the best equipment to do it with.

So how should you shake? The honest answer is however you want to. As long as it’s a vigorous shake of any style, for the appropriate amount of time (approximately 12 seconds), you will get the same result in temperature and dilution. Want to use fancy ice, go ahead, but it’s not going to make any difference on the temperature or dilution, don’t believe me? Check out Dave Arnold’s articles on CookingIssues.com to get some science dropped on you.

Different shakes and different ice can, however, result in different textures, this is worth it’s own article, but I challenge you to try to see what you can come up with on your own, consider how the ice is moving in the cocktail shaker, is it smashing back and forth? Moving in a fluid circle inside? Or maybe almost like a figure 8? I personally love shaking my margaritas half with nice 1¼” cubes and half with crushed to yield my preferred texture. As for what you should shake with, I’d invest in a proper cocktail shaker, a mason jar would do in a pinch but investing in a proper shaker will pay off in the long run, I prefer a Parisian style tin-on-tin shaker – glass has a higher thermal mass than tin, meaning it takes more energy to heat up and cool down, and thus is less efficient than tin.

Lastly, I’m regularly asked if one can you “bruise” a spirit, like Gin. My answer has, until very recently, echoed a response I heard many years ago: A grain is harvested, fermented, boiled, spat out some metal pipes, bottled on an industrial line and then shipped across the globe and we think a few seconds in a shaker can hurt it?

Well turns out it can, or at least so says MIT, yes that MIT, where research scientist Shannon Stewart who notes “any complex mixture of odors is generally divided into three parts: top note, middle note and base note or fixative,” and when you shake a gin (for instance) it causes those top notes to dissipate. “This is what we call bruising,” Stewart said. “Once you’ve shaken it, the rest of the drink only contains middle and base notes. Yuck.”

This doesn’t mean you should never shake a drink with gin in it, but be aware that you’ll lose those certain nuances. Shaking will do just fine as long as the drink won’t suffer from losing those certain subtleties, like a Gin Fizz. A drink that relies almost entirely on gin’s delightful nuances, like a Martini or Lucien Gaudin are best kept as far from a shaker as possible.

The Drink: The Daiquiri

Since it was first published in Recipes for Mixed Drinks by H. Ensslin in 1916 the Daquiri has been a pillar of the cocktail world. Unfortunately for many of us, a good Daiquiri is hard to come by these days. This classic concoction was brought to us in the late 1800’s by the American Jennings Cox working in the Sierra Maestra Mountains on the south-eastern shore of Cuba. The wonderfully simple recipe of Cuban rum, lime juice and sugar is one of the best drinks there is, and even after years of it’s bastardization with bad rum, blenders, and sour-mix it still reigns as one of the tastiest libations ever invented.

What You’ll Need:

  • 2 oz of Havana Club 3 year rum (if you’re living in the good ole USA this can be hard, substitute Cana Brava from Panama, not much else comes even close to what a good Cuban rum should taste like)
  • ¾ oz of Fresh squeezed lime juice (it’s fresh squeezed or bust here)
  • ¾ oz of Sugar cane syrup (you can use Simple Syrup in a pinch but I promise you it won’t be the same)
  • A cocktail shaker (head over to CocktailKindom.com and treat yourself)
  • A hawthorn or julep strainer
  • A fine mesh strainer
  • Some decent ice

cocktail tools

1. Take your cocktail shaker and add your rum, lime juice and cane syrup into it – put your ice in last.

Pro-Tip: Pour the ingredients into the overturned top of the shaker, add ice to the bottom part and combine the two by closing the lid on top. This will prevent any splashing out of the tin when you add the ice.

Making a daiquiri cocktail

2. Seal the lid onto the top of the shaker, give it a good downward bump forcing the lid to seal tight. You’re going to want a tight seal lest you’re a big fan of doing laundry.

3. Grab the tin with two hands, find a grip that’s comfortable but ensure that if, by chance, the tin separates from the shaking inside you’ll still have complete control over both ends of the shaker.

cocktail shaking

4. Shake the living hell out of that drink, get the contents inside to slam back and forth as quickly as possible. Find a good rhythm for 10-15 seconds. Maybe it’s ‘La Cucaracha’ maybe it’s ‘La Bamba’ but make it look and sound like you’ve done this before.

Pro-Tip: If you want practice try filling a tin with rice and listening to how it sounds when you shake, you want consistency here.

Everybody’s face looks ridiculous while shaking a drink, that’s just the way it goes.

5. Once you’ve adequately chilled and diluted your libation you need to get the damn thing out, but this part takes a bit of skill and practice. The metal on your shaker has contracted due to the chilling that’s occurred and tightened and created a vacuum inside. To break the seal you’re going to need to give the shaker a good bump with your palm at one of the points the top and bottom meet. Different shakers will have different sweet spots for this so once you discover yours remember it.

How to open a cocktail shaker

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it first time, I often see the most seasoned of veterans have trouble finding this sweet spot even on tools they’re familiar with.

6. Once you’ve got that top off you’re going to want to ensure none of even the tiniest bits of ice get into your drink to prevent it from becoming over-diluted. Take your hawthorn or julep strainer in the shaker and hold it steady with your fingers while you grip the shaker. Hold a fine strainer with the other hand and empty the shaker so that the drink passes through both strainers before resting in a chilled cocktail glass to be imbibed upon shortly.

Straining a cocktail

7. Drink, enjoy & be merry.

original Daiquiri recipe

Cheers!

Alex Black has honed his skills in hospitality and bartending for over 15 years, and has integrated himself into Vancouver's world class hospitality community including top tier locations under the Donnelly and Glowbal umbrellas as well as Hawksworth, Boulevard, the famous Gerard Room in the Sutton Place Hotel and the Vancouver Club. He has been a part of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most prized bar programs and events, amassing a number of certifications and personal awards. Read more on his website.

  • Alex Bear

    My girlfriend who was a bartender for many years swear there is only one way for people with breasts to shake a cocktail and that is above the head (gotta make those tips)