February 29th, 2008

Cold enough for you?

ice cubes

“Shake well with ice.”

The vast majority of recipes for straight-up cocktails instruct you to do this, but what does shaking (or stirring) “well” really mean? I occasionally give advice to home bartenders, and the main thing I find myself repeating is, “Shake/stir your cocktail until it’s really, really cold. You can leave a cocktail on ice longer than you think.” People are always surprised to hear this, because they heard somewhere once that bartenders are shiftless characters who will carelessly “water down” your drink unless you keep them on their toes. It’s not until these misguided drinkers have tasted a cocktail that’s been properly watered down, by a skilled bartender who knows his/her way around a shaker, that they realize what they’ve been missing during all those years of drinking tepid, poorly mixed booze.

But I find myself at a loss when the person I’m advising asks, “OK, but for how long do I shake the drink?” Well … it depends on the cocktail, the ice, the vigorousness of the shaking … In short, there’s not really a standard response. So I’m offering here the next best thing: expert advice. I posed these questions to several of Boston’s best bartenders: “How do you gauge when a cocktail’s cold enough — when your hand aches from holding the icy shaker? Do you count the number of shakes/stirs? For the home bartender’s sake, can you estimate the number of seconds (or even minutes) a typical cocktail should take to chill perfectly?” Their responses are below. Read them, and you’ll be able to wow the guests of your next cocktail party by demonstrating a “dry integration shake.”

NOTE: I didn’t really get into the whole matter of different types of ice, which some bartenders obsess over in their quest for the perfectly chilled drink. (That’ll be the subject for another day — this post’s long enough). That said, if you don’t have a Lewis Bag in your house, make sure you read to the end.

Rob Kraemer, Chez Henri

I go ’til my hand sticks to the shaker, probably under 20 seconds if shaking hard. Too long dilutes the drink fast, but I’m interested to see what other responses you get, as I don’t even think about it.

Ben Sandrof, No. 9 Park

As far as shaking a drink, I usually give egg drinks about a minute of shaking, unless of course it’s a fizz, in which case it’s a bit longer. If it’s a stirred cocktail, about 20 seconds does the trick. The key is that we are looking for approximately 20 to 30 percent ice melt in the cocktail, as well as the appropriate amount of chill. I could be a real nerd and tell you that there is a thermometer on hand to make sure the drinks are, as finished products, between 28 and 30 degrees, but let’s not go there yet…

Brother Cleve, freelance mixologist and cocktail historian

“When your hand aches from holding the icy shaker.” That’s really when I put it down. I recall going to the Blackbird in NYC when Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders were the bartenders, back in the late ’90s. I was really impressed with Dale’s shaking technique (over the shoulder, very fluid movements, and for a long time). I asked him about the length of time he would shake for, and he explained that he felt that the longer shaking time added, and mixed, the additional water the drink required to be balanced, especially since they used pretty large ice cubes. Generally, frost on the metal shaker indicates that it’s ready. I guess it works out to be a minute or two. I’ll shake longer if there’s dairy or eggs involved.

If I’m shaking with crushed ice, I do it for less time, as it adds more water at a more rapid rate. Same thing with blender drinks. Most tropicals should be done at high speed for five to 10 seconds, max.

Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, Eastern Standard

In all honesty, I would say that both shaking and stirring are, at this point, second nature. It is really about feel, tasting a drink … is it balanced? Does it need more water to balance it out? Shaking or stirring are, at their most basic, about waterizing. I would say, in most scenarios, it is not necessarily about getting “appropriately cold” (though that is a wonderful secondary side effect). Instead, I think about properly waterizing that drink first, and how that usually offers you the proper temperature.

There are a number of different of types of shakes as well, each depending on what it is you are actually shaking. Many of Boston’s bartenders use a “dry shake” [a shake without ice, usually followed by a shake with ice] on egg drinks, arguing that it creates better texture in a drink. Some of us don’t necessarily buy into that philosophy. Then there is the “integration shake,” basically a quick two or three shakes, used to make the different liquids come together better. It’s one we use a lot, both for drinks like the Whiskey Smash, which ends up being strained over crushed ice, and for a lot of sparkling cocktails, like the Belle du Jour or even a French 75. In the Whiskey Smash example, you even use one further breakdown, a dry integration shake. It is for this reason that I think it is really hard to give an answer to “how long?” With a sort of mainstream everyday cocktail it is probably in the range of 30 or so shakes, maybe somewhere around 20 seconds.

In terms of stirring, I usually teach new bartenders to stir their cocktails until the shaker frosts over. That, to me, is kind of an easier distinction, particularly if you are stirring out of a [metal] shaker rather than a glass.

Lewis BagNow, a piece of advice from little old me: Before you make a cocktail at home, crack your ice. The cubes from your standard freezer tray are nice and hard and dense — much better in quality than most “quick-melt” bar ice, I’ve heard bartenders say — but, with their smooth surfaces, they’re a little too slow to melt in your shaker. So empty a tray of cubes into your Lewis Bag, and give the bag a few hard wacks with the accompanying wooden mallet. Cracked ice + ample shaking/stirring time = great cocktails.

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5 Responses to “Cold enough for you?”

  1. Gareth

    I’ve always admired when bartenders have a quality “shake” when mixing…k that sounds odd. But I never thought about how long you would actually shake for though…

  2. Adam

    Great post!

  3. john

    Who cares about ice anyway?

    Come see for yourself next Monday at Stir.

    Book signing from 12:30-2:00


  4. Todd

    As I am now, deciple of David Embury I recommend reading pages 108-109 of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks… Stirring vs. Shaking… informative…

  5. jon

    At home, I keep my shaker in the deep freeze, with its own block of ice in the bottom!
    This is perfect for shaking one or two drinks for me & the wife.

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