Understanding how to mix a drink isn’t difficult once you know there are basically only three methods to do so. Cocktails can be put together either through shaking, stirring or building. Let’s start with the one we are all most familiar with.
The typical image of a bartender is one who uses a shaker to mix drinks. The fluid movements combined with the sound of ice hitting stainless steel has become synonymous with bartending. This is probably because it’s the only trade (except some bubble tea places) that uses such a tool.
This method of mixing provides the greatest degree of mingling among the ingredients, ensuring the individual components are always properly combined together. Fruit juices, dairy and egg whites should almost always be shaken. Shaking is also the only way a drink can aerate and thus froth. It’s the method that dilutes the most as well.
How hard you shake and the size/type of ice you use can also make a big difference. In general, shake lightly if you want less aeration and ice chipping, and shake harder for greater aeration and greater dilution from the ice. The more ice you use the less dilution you’d typically get, since they will melt slower.
Stirring is the most tried-and-true method for combining ingredients together. From mixing sugar into your tea to swirling milk in your coffee, everyone’s done it before. In the bartending world, the same logic applies, except there’s always, always a mixing glass, bar spoon, strainer and ice (lots of ice) involved.
The two objectives of stirring the mix in the glass is to combine the ingredients together while also chilling the liquid. The advantage stirring has over shaking is that it creates less dilution, but offers less aggressive mixing. Stirring is preferred for drinks that contain spirits and liqueurs only, such as Vespers, Martinis and Negronis, as the ice water dilution from over-shaking can easily throw off the balance of these cocktails.
This is the easiest method of making a cocktail, yet the one that’s least known. Building simply means pouring the ingredients into the glass you’re serving with. You’ve probably already done it before without knowing this is actually a proper bar technique. Highballs (where you simply pour whisky and soda into the glass), the Jack & Coke, and the Gin & Tonic are all examples of built drinks.
This method is the best way to mix drinks where you’re muddling directly in the serving glass, and want all the components to remain inside for maximum flavor. The Old Fashioned is one such cocktail, so is the Mojito, except in the latter you’re combining it with a shaking step too.
Technically, topping up a glass of shaken or stirred drink with tonic, beer or any other component after straining is adding a build step to the shaking or stirring. Most carbonated ingredients should only be built, as shaking might cause explosions, while stirring results in unwanted degassing.