Bartending Techniques Part 2: Shaking Cocktails

Shaking is the most common way of mixing and diluting cocktails. If you need help choosing a set of shaking tins, check out this post. Once you have your tins, using them is pretty straightforward. The only difficult part for some people is getting them separated but with a bit of practice you'll be cracking them apart in no time.

To use your shaker setup, first place your large shaker tin on the bar1 and measure your ingredients into it. Add ice. Place your smaller "cheater" tin, opening down, into the larger tin. You don't want the vertical axes of the tins aligned when you do this. Offset the axis of cheater tin from that of the larger tin. Basically, you want the wall of the cheater tin to rest against the lip of the larger tin. Holding the larger tin firmly to the bar with one hand, slam your palm down on the bottom of the cheater tin to firmly wedge it in place.

Now, pick it up and, with the smaller tin pointed toward yourself, shake it. Pointing the smaller tin toward you makes it less likely that you will spray cocktail all over the bar or, worse, your guests, if something should go wrong and the tins fall apart mid shake.

I've read a lot of articles over the years about "proper" shaking methodology but trust me, if anyone has ever told you the "right way" to shake a drink, it's bullshit. I guarantee you given the exact same recipe, temperature, and dilution level, no one is going to be able to tell the difference between two cocktails, one shaken with a vigorous, piston-like, back and forth motion, and another shaken with a "Japanese hard shake". One method may dilute the drink faster, for sure, but as long as you know that your method is giving you the proper dilution, you could put your tins in a paint shaker for all the difference it makes.

My shake time changes depending on the cocktail but I basically shake until after condensation starts forming on the outside of the shaker tins. I'll generally shake longer for cocktails served up without ice than those served over ice because cocktails served up need to be to the exact right dilution level when they hit the serving glass. Cocktails served over ice will continue to dilute in the glass. With my technique and lots of Kold-Draft ice, this usually means about six to ten seconds of very hard shaking. Since I'm making 500-600 drinks on a busy night (around 60% of which are shaken), a brief, forceful shake serves me well. I have fairly large hands so I find it easy to shake one handed and, therefore, to shake two cocktails at once, but if you're not comfortable with that, lots of bartenders prefer a two-handed shake as well (it's probably better for your shoulders in the long run anyway). Do what works for you.

Not to get too off track here but I'd like to share a little bit of the science behind what's happening when you shake a cocktail. Once you slam that cheater tin down on the large tin, you've formed a closed system with a fixed volume. The liquid and gas inside the tins at this point are in isolation from the air outside the tin. As you shake, the ice starts to melt and cool everything down, the melted water has a higher density than ice (and therefore has a lower volume) and as the liquid ingredients (alcohol, citrus, sugar, etc.) cool down, they also increase in density (decreasing in volume). The volumetric decrease in liquid and solid ingredients allows the air in the shaker to increase in volume, but because the system is closed and no new air molecules can be added, increasing the volume of air decreases the air pressure inside the tins. The negative pressure forms a vacuum, drawing the two tins together. This is one of the reasons why the tins don't fly apart when a bartender shakes one-handed and why the tins are difficult to pull apart. The guys over at Cooking Issues, who I really respect, have a much more in-depth explanation if you're interested. They also have a fascinating breakdown on how shaking chills your cocktail below the freezing point of ice (around -7°C), even though you start with ice at 0°C and ingredients at room temperature.

Okay, so you've got your drink cold and properly diluted, now comes the "hard" part, breaking the tins apart. Holding the bottom shaker tin firmly in your non-dominant hand, place your thumb over the point where the cheater tin touches the large tin and, using the meaty part of your dominant hand where the thumb meats your palm, hit the large tin firmly at a spot about an inch and a half away from where the two tins meet. You should hear a crack and the tins should break apart. Practice with empty tins, or shaken ice water until you get it.

Once you have the tins apart, strain the drink into your serving glass, rinse your tins, and drink up!

Notes

1 Some references will tell you to measure your cocktail into the smaller tin instead of the larger tin, and then pack it with ice. This way, they observe, you will never fill your tins past their capacity. While it's true that there is a danger of overfilling the larger tin—making it impossible to get the smaller tin on without spraying cocktail everywhere—over time you'll learn what your maximum capacity is and you won't overfill. I prefer to measure into the larger tin for two reasons. First, the smaller tin can usually hold only two cocktails worth of ingredients max, whereas the larger tin can hold three easily with room to spare. Also, because the tins are already oriented properly (with the smaller tin facing up, and therefore, toward you) measuring into the larger tins allows you to grab them off the bar and immediately start shaking without having to flip them around. This especially comes in handy when you are shaking two cocktails at once.

The Bartender's Kit Part 2: Mixing Vessels

Just like the world of ridiculous kitchen gadgets, the world of bartending tools is full of all kinds of useless items that may look neat/terrifying, but ultimately fail at making the process of mixing cocktails more efficient. In a large, busy, craft cocktail bar, the service well bartender will frequently be expected to build, shake or stir, and garnish an average of two to three drinks per minute for an entire eight-hour shift. The pros don’t have time to waste on gimmicks, they know the tools that work to make their job easier and more efficient. For this reason, the essential tools professional bartenders use vary little across bars. In this post, we’ll examine the different types of mixing vessels the pros use and explain why they use them. We’ll also give some examples of alternatives that are commonly marketed to the novice cocktail mixer and why you may want to steer clear of them. The first part of this post will focus on the most important tool in the bartender's arsenal, the shaker, and the second will highlight different options for stirring vessels. Deciding when to shake a drink and when to stir is covered in this other post.

Shaking Vessels

There are four types of shaker setups you can commonly buy but, in my opinion, three of them are stupid.
What not to buy: Cobbler Shakers, Parisian Shakers, and Boston Shakers

Cobbler Shakers
Cobbler Shakers are often billed as easier for novices to use than the other types but in my experience, that's not the case. This type of shaker is made of metal and consists of three pieces, a bottom, a perforated top that acts as a strainer, and a cap. The only place in the world they are commonly used is Japan because... Japan is weird. In the west, I rarely see these in use in a professional bar setting and when I do, I usually order a beer because the chances of getting a decent cocktail are somewhat worse than the odds of being struck by falling airplane debris.

Cobbler Shakers suck for several reasons. First, the internal vacuum created by shaking (discussed below) makes the tins very difficult to get apart without resorting to vice grips and over time and repeated use, the seal between the lower tin and the upper strainer becomes too loose or too tight either spraying your carefully measured cocktail all over the place or, once again making it difficult to get the tins apart. Also, the three-piece design takes more time to rinse between cocktails, the built in strainer is too small to quickly drain and doesn’t have a “gate” to help control the strain, and the cap is constantly getting misplaced, rendering the entire apparatus useless.

Parisian Shaker
The Parisian Shaker is sort of like a Cobbler Shaker without the cap and built-in strainer. Graceful-looking, all-metal affairs, the two tins fit snugly together to form a seal—at first. But these have the same issue that the Cobbler Shakers have, difficult to get apart after shaking and eventually the tins get warped and the seal becomes too loose.

Boston Shaker
Boston Shakers consist of a large metal bottom tin and a smaller “mixing” glass (usually a 16-oz, straight-sided pint glass). These are a viable alternative to my preferred shaker set but I dislike the glass used in the Boston Shaker for several reasons. First, it’s heavier than an all-metal tin setup, after shaking hundreds of cocktails in a night, this truly makes a difference with how a bartender's arms will feel the next day. Second, without getting into a lot of complex thermodynamics, the higher thermal mass of the glass absorbs more heat before it cools, so cocktails shaken with a Boston Shaker can taker longer to reach proper dilution than those shaken with an all-metal setup. Third, glass breaks; an accidental drop to the floor (or, worse, the ice well) stops service. The only benefit of the glass "tin" is that bartenders who free pour liquor and mixers can see the level of liquid in the glass before they add ice to ensure that they properly mixed the cocktail. Most professionals and home bartenders these days jigger everything though, so they don’t need a clear mixing glass to see the liquid level.

What to buy: a set of uninsulated, metal, weighted, mixing tins

Mixing Tins
The best shaker set is one that consists of two metal tins, the smaller "cheater" tin (usually 16–18 oz) replaces the mixing glass in the Boston Shaker setup and fits snugly into the larger tin (usually 26–30 oz) to form a tight seal. Unlike the Cobbler and Parisian Shakers, these tins actually fit together more tightly as the metal warps over time. The low thermal mass of the two metal tins cools cocktails quickly and efficiently. The metal tins won’t break; even under the most rigorous use, they will easily last a lifetime. And, as an added bonus, they are the least expensive of the options above. The weighted tins on this page and this page from barproducts.com are an excellent, low-cost, entry-level set I happily used for years and I’m currently using this set from Cocktail Kingdom and loving them. 

A side note, don't buy insulated shaker tins. I think these started as a gimmick and in recent years I've seen more and more bartenders using them. The insulation is designed to keep your hands warm, which it does; the only problem is that it also keeps your cocktail warm. Just like the heavy glass in the Boston shaker, the thermal mass of the insulation absorbs so much heat that it can take forever to chill your cocktail sufficiently. If you're a home bartender, your hands will warm back up in seconds and if you're shaking all night behind a busy bar, your hands just get used to it.

Stirring Vessels

Because stirring vessels aren't as specialized as shaker tins, there's quite a bit of variety in what people choose to use. I've seen lots of bartender's "stir" cocktails in pint glasses or cheater tins but I've found the conical shape and narrow bottoms of these vessels to be problematic for maintaining an efficient stir. Lots of bartenders these days are opting for specialized, cut-glass, Yarai-style, Japanese mixing glasses. These are beautiful and their straight sides make stirring a breeze. Several people in the bar I work for use this glass from Cocktail Kingdom and a few others I know use this cheaper one and they're very happy with it.

I don't use any of these though, instead I opt for 600 mL chemistry beakers. I can't take credit for the idea, the bar I work for has been using them since it opened but I love using beakers because they are made of durable, inert, break-resistant Pyrex glass and they have a much thinner base and side walls than the Japanese mixing glasses, once again resulting in a lower thermal mass that allows for faster chilling. The flat bottom and straight, groovless sides also make for easy stirring and the graduated markings make it easy to judge dilution levels. Plus, they're super cheap! People do look at me strangely sometimes when I whip out the chemistry set but I'll never go back to the Japanese glasses.

So that's my mixing vessels overview. Although I'm passionate about the products I've presented here, as I say on all my tool reviews, ultimately the right tool for you is the one you're most comfortable with, so if your mixing vessel choices aren't the same as mine and you're happy with them, that's great! Happy mixing!