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Examining the Science and Style of the Shake

We analyzed the shakes of three top bartenders to see just how much personal style affects your drink.

Assuming that a bartender has just one way of shaking a drink is a bit like saying a chef has only “one signature way to work with fire,” says William Elliott, bar director at New York’s Maison Premiere, Sauvage and The Golden Hour.

“People think it’s about achieving some cool rhythm, or some cool look,” says Elliott. But more often than not, he points out, the speed, trajectory and rhythm with which a bartender shakes is carefully designed to build a better drink. It’s a skill that’s often developed over months, or even years, and is just as much about functionality as it is about personal style.

At its most basic, shaking is about mixing, chilling and diluting a cocktail (typically one containing “cloudy” ingredients, such as juice, cream or egg white) by agitating it with plenty of ice. But shaking is also what gives a drink its texture—meaning that a shake can help aerate, emulsify and integrate ingredients.

It might seem like a relatively simple concept, but shaking time and intensity can vary greatly depending on what’s inside the shaker, and how the finished drink will be served. It’s among the reasons that veteran bartender Joaquín Simó, proprietor of New York’s Pouring Ribbons, teaches a range of shakes to his bar team.

The longest, hardest shake, he explains, is reserved for drinks that are served up, like a Daiquiri, while a rocks drink might benefit from a shorter shake, given that “some of that ice [in the glass] will dilute the drink.” For drinks that will receive a “lengthener”—such as ginger beer that’s added to lengthen a buck—the shake is shorter still, but especially vigorous. “You want the fewest number of strokes to combine and chill, but you’re not trying to add more water to it,” says Simó. The shortest shake of all, he says, should be performed on a cocktail that’s to be served over fast-melting pebbled or crushed ice. Called a “whip shake,” it’s designed to combine and chill the ingredients while adding the bare minimum amount of dilution.

There is also the question of movement, or trajectory. While the American style of shaking is generally a back-and-forth motion, the Japanese hard shake involves moving the shaker through three separate points relative to the cocktail-maker’s body. In general, it starts as a fluid movement, beginning around head height, moves to slightly lower than head height and then slightly lower than that, with a wrist snap at each point to maximize the amount of contact between the ice and the liquid.

While some might insist that a hard shake results in a better drink, that’s a point of contention in the bartending community. Many argue that the success of a shake is less about the specific movement and more about the balance between the type of ice used, personal style and the format of the drink in question. Some even have multiple shakes, depending on what they are trying to achieve.

“There’s no master shake,” says Ricky Agustin, head bartender at Pegu Club, who says he has four individual shakes that he works with. For example, the shake he demonstrates below is “a general purpose shake for things that require a fast and deep chill,” and involves a shaker packed full of Kold-Draft ice. By comparison, he says, shaking a fizz-style drink would involve less ice and less power; it’s more about listening for the ingredients sloshing about inside to emulsify and thicken.

To this point, “each individual bartender learns early in their career the logic behind how long and hard different styles of drinks need to be shaken,” says Haley Traub of Dutch Kills and Fresh Kills, and recent winner of Speed Rack. She says that it took about two years to fully train her body to balance while shaking with the large, dense ice cubes used by both bars.

Occasionally, too, a shake is developed specifically to protect a bartender from injury. In fact, some drink-makers have deliberately adjusted their signatures over time for this reason. “The shake I have now,”—a fluid, elliptical motion—“is very much shaped by my age,” says Natasha David, co-owner of New York’s Nitecap. “I needed to find a shake that would make a delicious drink but also be easy on my body.”

So how do all of these variations in shaking style impact finished cocktails? To answer this question, PUNCH invited three bartenders to demonstrate their signature shakes. In each case, we asked them to shake up a standard Daiquiri—made using two ounces of rum, plus three-quarters of an ounce each of lime juice and simple syrup—then calculated the volume by weight of the drink after just 10 seconds of shaking. Next, we asked them to make a second Daiquiri and shake it until they felt it was complete, timing how long it took each bartender, and then testing the final volume of their drink.

Here, a detailed look at their three very different styles.

Natasha David Nitecap

Natasha David, Co-Owner, Nitecap

The shake: David holds the shaker just above chest height, and uses a fluid, elongated, slightly circular motion to rotate the shaker away from her body.

The explanation: “I shake sideways,” says David. “Everyone has a nightmare story about the shaker exploding; if I hold it sideways it falls on me, not a guest.” Although she used to hold the shaker much higher, using more of a choppy back-and-forth motion, it was harder on her body. By holding the shaker in front, she says, “you can balance your body better and keep better posture.”

The effect: Most often, David calls on Kold-Draft ice cubes (though she’ll occasionally shake with one large, dense ice cube at Nitecap, depending on the drink), and employs a circular motion so that the ice inside the shaker won’t crack as it might with a more aggressive shake; keeping the cubes whole prevents them from dissolving too quickly and adding too much dilution to the drink. Instead, the ice cubes round out as they hit gently against the inside of the shaker.

The stats: After just 10 seconds of shaking, David’s Daiquiri had diluted by 20 percent, equalling about three-quarters of an ounce of added water. Ultimately, however, she felt that a shake lasting a little over 19 seconds made for an adequately chilled cocktail. When measured, the final drink had diluted by around 33 percent, equaling just over an ounce of water accumulated during the shaking process.

Haley Traub, Bartender, Dutch Kills and Fresh Kills

The shake: Traub holds the shaker at shoulder height; most of the back-and-forth movement is in her wrists and forearms—not her shoulders—yielding a piston-like, horizontal shake with a staccato cadence.

The explanation: While the other bartenders in this experiment typically use standard-size ice cubes, Traub uses a single large cube, which is the house style at Dutch Kills and Fresh Kills. “It’s taken me two years to figure out how to shake with a single rock,” she says. “I really had to adjust my shake accordingly.” That meant learning to protect her shoulders from the weight of shaking that larger, denser cube by lowering her arms below shoulder height. “By focusing on my lower arms, I can produce more strength there.”

The effect: Although the movement appears choppy, there’s still a circular motion going on, which shaves the edges off the large cube and creates desirable crystallization (“those itty bitty ice chips”) in the finished cocktail. (It’s worth noting that some bartenders deliberately strain out those ice chips, since they can add additional dilution to the finished drink, but others like the texture.) Meanwhile, the back-and-forth motion helps aerate the drink.

The stats: Given that Traub opted to shake with one large, dense ice cube, you might imagine that her drink would contain less dilution after 10 seconds of shaking. And that was true, but the difference was minor; her 10-second Daiquiri contained only slightly less dilution than David’s—a little under 20 percent. Again, like David, Traub’s final shake clocked in at a little over 19 seconds, though her drink ultimately offered a tad less dilution, at just under one ounce.

Ricky Augustin Pegu Club

Ricky Agustin, Head Bartender, Pegu Club

The shake: After a crisp one-two shake at hip level, Agustin lifts the shaker to his midsection and completes the shake with a smooth, elliptical motion resembling a wave; you can hear short bursts of ice but overall this is a fairly quiet—albeit especially fast—shake.

The explanation: Agustin has several types of shakes in his arsenal; this one is “a general purpose shake for things that require a fast and deep chill.” Overall, he likens this shake to “a battering ram, crushing a lot of ice.” That first hip-level shake—“like stepping forward into a baseball bat swing”—forces all the ice and liquid into one section of the shaker, getting it into position to crush. He then elevates the shaker to the middle of the body for the actual shaking motion. To avoid injury, he prefers to hold the shaker at a natural distance from the body, not too high up or too far away: “Hold it where you would normally clap,” he advises.

The effect: Aeration is the objective of this particular shake. The elliptical motion creates a helix, he says. That wave-like shake sends the ice smoothly and continuously through the liquid, creating more bubbles for a visibly frothy drink.

The stats: With his especially fast shake and choice to use Kold-Draft cubes, it’s no surprise that Agustin’s Daiquiri was also the fastest to dilute. After 10 seconds of unchecked shaking, the volume of his drink had climbed by more than an ounce. His second shake, which lasted just 11 seconds, resulted in a Daiquiri with, once again, a little over an ounce of added water.

Illustrations by Nick Hensley Wagner.

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