To shake or to stir? The laws that dictate the answer to this question are almost always the first a new bartender learns. And those laws are presented in black and white: If the cocktail contains only alcohol-based ingredients (spirits, vermouths, liqueurs) it should be stirred; if it contains any non-alcoholic ingredients (citrus juice, eggs, cream, fresh fruit or herbs), it should be shaken. This has become so codified into the “right and wrong” of bartending that few have ever stopped to ask why, exactly, it makes such a difference—or whether it makes one at all.
The thinking goes that the tiny air bubbles created when a drink is shaken with ice disturb the desired silky texture of spirit-forward cocktails like the Martini and Manhattan. Further, shaking these drinks runs the risk of over diluting them and creating a cloudy-looking cocktail, or as the adage goes, “bruising the gin.”
Likewise, stirring a shaken drink, like the Daiquiri, is deemed equally outrageous, an improper method for integrating the ingredients. But that’s for another day. It’s the “crime” of shaking a stirred drink—of rendering a crystalline Martini, cloudy; of turning a silky, rich Manhattan, dull and muddied—that sparks the most controversy. But taking the dogma out of it, and putting the science aside, can a discerning drinker even tell the difference between a Martini that was shaken and one that was stirred?
It’s a question that has been on my mind for some time—ever since numerous bartenders in my circle recounted their own difficulty in picking out the shaken Martini from a lineup.
To attempt to settle the matter, I, along with the team at PUNCH, assembled a blind tasting to determine just that. We tasted three cocktails that are classically stirred: the Martini, Manhattan and Negroni, each prepared three different ways—stirred, lightly shaken (so as to minimize aeration) and shaken hard, as you would typically shake a cocktail with citrus. (In each case, I did my best to hit the proper marks for dilution and temperature, although knowing precisely when to stop shaking a Negroni is far less ingrained than when to stop stirring one.)
The results were at least surprising—and in some cases a bit scandalous.
It was immediately apparent that the shaken versions were indeed cloudy when strained, yet in the 15 to 30 seconds it took for them to reach the tasters, the bubbles had entirely disappeared. (For what it’s worth, they were fine strained, but let’s also save the “ice chips on the surface” debate for another day.)
Two of the three tasters preferred the stirred Martini, feeling it was the most cohesive. One preferred the lightly shaken variation and found it to be rounder. I personally agreed, finding the shaken version exhibited more of the vermouth’s characteristics, though it was a hair over-diluted. The hard-shaken Martini, meanwhile, came across as the booziest, harshest and least liked of the three. Counterintuitively, in my effort to hit the mark on dilution and temperature, I didn’t shake it long enough, and under-diluted the drink rather than over-diluting. But this much was clear (from three perfectly clear drinks): Shaking a Martini certainly doesn’t ruin it, and with a little finesse, it can stand toe-to-toe with its stirred counterpart.
Here, stirring appeared to hold the largest advantage. Unlike the Martini, the bubbles in the shaken versions lingered and were deemed less visually appealing than their stirred alternative. All three tasters chose the stirred Manhattan as their first choice, finding it the most dynamic and rounded. That said, we all would have happily consumed the shaken Manhattans. They even seemed a touch brighter, with more fruit notes present.
Visuals aside, one of the most noticeable differences between the shaken and stirred versions was the way in which each component of each cocktail presented itself. In the stirred example, the base spirit took the driver’s seat, with the supporting ingredients appearing in subsequent layers. The shaken versions, on the other hand, resulted in drinks that read more like a unified whole, with otherwise secondary flavors, like vermouth, coming into the foreground. The experiment revealed shaking to be a potential tool, not just for texture as it’s commonly thought to be, but for flavor, highlighting different characteristics within the familiar elements. While there was a universal preference for the stirred Manhattan there was also a universal agreement that shaking the Manhattan offers a means to understanding the drink—and flavor integration, in general—in a different way.
Like the Martini, the bubbles only momentarily stuck around in the shaken Negronis, and appeared identical by the time they hit the bar. One taster picked the lightly shaken Negroni as their top choice, while the other two were unable to decide between the stirred and lightly shaken version, finding them indistinguishable from one another.
With the hard-shaken Negroni falling into last place again, it became apparent that one of the greatest benefits of stirring spirit-forward cocktails is superior control over chilling and dilution. Shaking dilutes more quickly, providing the bartender only a small margin of error to hit their mark. With some practice, however, anyone could learn to properly dilute any cocktail in a shaker, so long as they have a firm grasp of the nuances required of the drink—which, of course, is no small matter.
It should not be assumed, however, that shaken and stirring on interchangeable. On the contrary, each technique highlights a unique set of characteristics in the ingredients in question. But the rule does appear to be less black and white than it’s often perceived to be. Making a cocktail is all about getting from Point A, a group of disparate ingredients, to Point B, a chilled and diluted whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. If bending the “law,” so to speak, proved anything, it’s that there’s more than one way to get there.