Bartender Basics: The Right Way To Shake a Cocktail | Wine Enthusiast
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Bartender Basics: The Right Way To Shake a Cocktail

Shaking is one of the primary methods to mix, chill and dilute a cocktail. It’s generally used for drinks that contain citric acid in the form of lemon or lime juice, like those in the sour family of cocktails, or those that contain cloudy ingredients like pineapple juice.

What are the benefits of shaking a cocktail over stirring? Drinks will be chilled and dilute in a shorter amount of time. Shaking also provides smoother texture and a bit of froth due to aeration. This texture and foam are desirable in, say, a daiquiri, but not a martini.

Shaking is also one of the most needlessly overcomplicated techniques in bartending. This is because it’s financially prudent for bartenders to make their jobs seem as complicated as possible, to justify the price of your bar tab at the end of the night. Before we get into why, let’s cover the basics.

Cobbler shaker with julep strainer and assorted bar tools / Getty
Cobbler shaker with julep strainer and assorted bar tools / Getty

Types of shakers and strainers

There are primarily two main types of shakers: the cobbler and the Boston shaker. (A third, the Parisian/French shaker, exists but is much less common and much more annoying.) The cobbler is a three-piece shaker that consists of a metal cup, a top with an integrated strainer, and a metal cap to seal the opening.

A Boston shaker is a two-piece system that involves a large metal cup, and a smaller cup that the larger tin fits over, creating a seal. The smaller cup can either be metal or a Boston glass (a.k.a. beer pint). The latter is primarily used when shaking multiple drinks at one time.

Boston shakers require an external strainer, unless one is skilled in the art of “crack the seal slightly and pour through the gap in the tins” technique. This will either be a Hawthorne strainer, a metal sieve with a coiled spring around the edge to catch the ice, or a julep strainer, which looks like a slotted spoon. Both serve the exact same purpose of holding back ice, but Hawthorne strainers are used to strain drinks from the larger of the metal tins (though the spring can usually conform to smaller glasses as well), while the julep strainer is primarily used for pouring from a Boston/pint glass.

Boston shaker with Hawthorne strainer / Getty
Boston shaker with Hawthorne strainer / Getty

Which is better? It doesn’t matter, use whichever feels comfortable to you. Caps on the cobbler tend to get stuck, leak more and usually can’t be used to make multiple drinks, so you’ll mostly see Boston shakers in professional bars. But if you dig the classic look of a cobbler at home, have at it.

How to shake a cocktail

Add your cocktail ingredients to the shaker, fill with ice and seal. Pick up the shaker and turn it sideways, a full 90 degrees. Shake vigorously for 12–15 seconds. Open, and strain your drink into a glass, either over fresh ice or served up.

Almost every other embellishment to shaking a drink is purely for show and do not at all affect how your drink tastes. Common embellishments are:

The Clicky-Clack: An up and down motion with the shaker that creates a pleasing and professional-sounding tambourine-like effect.

The Two-Hander: Gripping one shaker with two hands, one on the front and one to the rear, as if to demonstrate complete focus on the drink, and that its perfection requires dedicated input from both arms.

The Too Much Coffee Shake: A super-fast shake meant to shock and awe guests at how much faster you shake than they would at home.

The Motorboat: Shaking two shakers at once, alternating one moving forward while the other goes back.

The Gun Show: Shaking two shakers at once, in perfect symmetry, possibly while flexing your biceps and squinting intently.

The Spin: Casually twirling the shaker in the palm of your hand when you pick it up to look cool, occasionally spraying water and alcohol on your fellow bartenders in the process.

Row of Boston shakers on bar

Tips of the trade

In a 2009 article with an impressive level of science, bar wizards Dave Arnold, Eben Klemm and Alex Day used thermocouples embedded into a cocktail shaker to prove that regardless of shaking style or the type of ice used (as long as it’s not shaved ice), after about 12 seconds of shaking, almost all drinks reached the same equilibrium of chill and dilution. That’s not to say a little flair can’t make your technique more impressive, just don’t believe a bartender who claims their shake to be better for your drink than anyone else’s.

However, if you’re just starting out, here are a few tips that can help you along:

  • Always keep the shaker horizontal, ensuring as much surface area contact as possible between your ice/cocktail and the metal of your tin(s).
  • Keep the end of the cobbler with the cap, and the smaller of the two tins of a Boston shaker, pointed behind you when you shake. This will avoid potentially spraying guests if your seal becomes loose.
  • When using a Boston shaker, add your ice/ingredients to the smaller of your two tins, fitting the larger one on top. Slapping the smaller tin into an overfilled larger one is a recipe for alcohol to gush out of the shaker and into your face.
  • When using a Boston shaker with a glass pint, never smack it against a hard surface to dislodge the two containers, unless you want to risk broken glass in your drink. A gentle squeeze and a wiggle are usually all it will take to unlock your shaker.
  • Shaking a drink that’s meant to be served up (without ice)? Double-strain your cocktail through a small mesh sieve when you pour into the glass, if you want to avoid ice chips or look fancy.
  • If you’re making an egg white cocktail, you’ll want to perfect your dry shake. More information on that can be found here.