The Basics Of Mixing A Cocktail.
At its most basic, all one does when mixing a drink is combine two or more ingredients. But provide the same ingredients to different people with varying skill levels and experience, and you will get completely different results. The results are a combination of the quality of the ingredients, the technique, and the skill of the individual mixing a drink. I hope this post provides insight into how drinks are constructed and the techniques and tools used.
The 5 Different Methods To Mix A Drink.
After having mixed drinks for over a decade, writing a mobile cocktail app, and gathering hundreds upon hundreds of recipes for a website, I have concluded that five primary methods of mixing are most frequently used:
- Tiki Dirty Pour
- Simple Combination
The five above are the most common methods and will be 95% of the drinks you make. The eight listed below are less common but still worth knowing and are usually used in specific styles of cocktails or occasions.
- Milk Clarification
- Pousse Café
- Bomb Shot
There are many variations within these. For example, in my app Stirring has a 1). Neat stir, 2). Neat stir over ice, 3). Neat stir over crushed ice, and 4). Soda water topped neat stir. Shake has 14 variations. But the primary mixing method is still to stir or shake. I will go ahead and describe each in more detail below.
Shaking is one of the most common methods of mixing a drink, Stirring being the other. Shaking and stirring account for around 80% of the drinks you will make. While shaking is not difficult, performing the correct rhythm and timing instinctually takes time. The rhythm is dictated by how fast you shake and the size of the shaker used. A 500 mL cobbler shaker has a different rhythm than an 830 mL Boston shaker. Switching to an other type of shaker is hard if it’s different from the one you typically use. It can be done, but it doesn’t feel good. I’ll talk more about tools and techniques in their sections below.
The main point of shaking instead of stirring is to provide a creamier texture. Thats it. This is also referred to as softening the drink. Some drinks taste better flat and still, while others taste better soft and creamy. A martini or negroni with a creamy texture would be weird, so those are stirred, but a sidecar or margarita with a creamier texture is terrific, so those are shaken. Shaking is always used for drinks with egg whites and dairy mixed in. It is the only way to foam egg whites and fluff heavy cream. It is very often used for mixing drinks with citrus. Sours usually taste better with a creamier texture. An exception would be the crustas or oyster bay which are stirred. If you get into 19th-century style sodas, the syrups are often shaken before mixing in soda water to create foam.
Stirring is one of the other most common methods of mixing a drink, Shaking being the other. Stirring and shaking account for around 80% of the drinks you will make. Stiring is used to create a perfectly still drink free of air. Drinks like martinis are best cold and flat, so those are stirred. Usually old fashion drinks that are all spirit, liqueur, or aperitif are mixed.
3). Tiki Dirty Pour
Also called dirty dumping this method involves adding a scoop of crushed ice to a shaker. Shaking the drink for 5 to 8 seconds and then pouring the whole thing, Ice and all, into a glass. No strainers or double strainers are used here. What is in the shaker goes into the glass. I have come to like this method over the last few years. It adds a lot of air, dilution, and fun little crushed ice to drinks. This method works well for very boozy beverages as it softens the high levels of alcohol. Tiki drinks are known for being boozy, so i can see how this method evolved out of those bars. I’ve made long islands using this that are fantastic
5). Simple Combination
This is used for making large punches and combines all the ingredients in a large container. This works well for drinks like the planter’s punch or soju cocktails, where the ingredients are mixed, set aside, and people serve themselves throughout the night. The single-serve version of this is built-in glass
This is simply for drinks that it doesn’t make sense to shake or stir in one glass to pour into another. The drink doesn’t need the air of shaking or the stillness of stirring, so it would be silly to use one of the tools to build it. The Mimosa is a great example of this. Those are only made in the glass they will be served in. The Rickey and Gin and Tonic are good examples of this too.
Blended drinks are drinks made in a blender. Unheard of in traditional bars, the blender is a staple of the tiki-style bar and the tool used to make delicious slushy drinks. If you want to make frozen margaritas or scorpions, you must have a blender. Alternatively, you can get an ice shaver and shake it with a scoop of shaved ice to get the same effect.
Swizzling is a mixing method where you quickly whisk the drink with a swizzle stick. The swizzle stick is a branch from the swizzle bush that grows in the Caribbean. Place the long end of the swizzle stick between your palms and rotate the shaft very quickly between your palms. It’s an excellent way to give the texture and air of a shake if you don’t have a shaker. If you own a shaker, swizzling is unnecessary, as the final result is the same. But it does look cool.
Infusion is the process of disolving oil and water-soluble flavors in alcohol. Alcohol is an excellent solvent because it bonds to both water and oil and, if done correctly, can emulsify oil in water too. Infusions are done by soaking plants in high-proof alcohol and letting the alcohol extract/bond to the desirable flavors or aromas of the plant. The soaking takes at least 24 hours and up to a week, depending on the hardness of the plant and the size of the plant bits. You’ll use this if you make ingredients like bitters, liqueurs, and infused spirits or make old-fashioned drinks like glögg or cherry bounce. Infusions are still very common in syrups.
One way to bypass the long soaking time is to use steam-distilled essential oils mixed with high-proof alcohol. I say steam distilled because using solvent-extracted essential oils is not advisable. This is also a more precise way of making infusions because it’s better measured and controlled. So instead of adding lemon peels to alcohol and letting them soak for a day or two, one can add 1 mL of lemon essential oil to 30 mLs of alcohol and instantly make lemon extract, which can be added to lemon syrup or to make lemon vodka.
Stove-top made cocktails are drinks heated over a stove and served warm. You’ll only find these in the wintertime when people want warm drinks. Technically any drink can be served warm, but it’s usually winter drinks that get heated and served for the holidays. Drinks include mulled wine, hot chocolate, hot ale flips, hot toddies, etc. The mistake most people make when making heated drinks is cooking the drink too long. It’s wine, not pork shoulder. This long and slow method is a product of the 1970s and the popularity of the Crock-Pot. When the Crock-Pot came to market, the manufacturer published a recipe book to show users what their new kitchen tool could do. Regular recipes were converted to recipes that could be assembled in the morning and cooked all day to be ready at night. Mulled wine was given the Crock-Pot treatment and never recovered in the USA. The best way to heat drinks is to prepare them ahead of time and heat them right before serving.
10). Milk Clarification
Milk Clarification is another very old technique that has recently become popular over the last few years. Check out my Benjamin Franklin English Milk Punch recipe for an in-depth breakdown of how milk clarification works. The process uses curdled milk casein protein to join together around particles in the drink and then trap the particles. The remaining liquid is completely clear once the curdled casin is filtered out. The problem with reviving this cocktail style is that the milk we buy today differs from the milk purchased in the 18th century. Today, milk is homogenized and pasteurized, all things that inhibit the cheese-making process, which means making clarified cocktails is much more challenging than 200 years ago when raw milk was used. Again read my clarified milk punch recipe to learn how to clarify cocktails and overcome some of these issues with modern milk.
11). Pousse Café
Pousse Café is layering a drink based on the gravity of each ingredient to form clean separations between them. Pousse Café looks neat and is done for effect and looks rather than improving the taste. What it means to separate the ingredients based on gravity is to pour the heaviest/densest ingredients first and the less dense ingredients on top. The three factors to consider when determining an ingredient’s gravity are alcohol, water, and sugar. Sugar is the heaviest of the three, with water next and alcohol last. An ingredient that is higher in sugar will sit lower than one that has less sugar, and an ingredient that is higher in alcohol will sit higher than one that has less alcohol. For example, the Duck Fart Shot, originally named the IRA, is first Kahlúa, Irish cream, and whiskey last. Kahlúa has the most sugar, so it sits the lowest; Irish cream has less sugar than Kahlúa but more than whiskey, so it goes next, and lastly, whiskey since it has no sugar and the most alcohol.
The trick to layering is to pour as slowly and gently as possible. This causes the least amount of disturbance between the two layers. This is easier said than done. Everyone uses a spoon to help do this. Place a spoon at the top of the highest layer and pour as closely and slowly as you reasonably can into the spoon. This makes it so the top layer is as undisturbed as possible while pouring in the next layer.
This is an outdated colonial-era technique you will never see in a bar today, but if you have the right tools, you can make some enjoyable drinks. A toddy rod and flipping glass were tools for making hot toddies and flips in the 18th century. Also called a loggerhead, the toddy rod is a metal rod with a large head a tavern owner could keep in the fireplace to make warm drinks. Running a stove was expensive and took time to heat up and cool down. It was unknown if someone would even order a hot drink, too, so tavern owners would instead place several toddy rods in the fireplace and use one to heat a drink if a customer requested a warm drink.
Because drinks would boil and expand when a hot toddy rod was dunked in a large glass called a toddy glass was used to prepare the drink. These toddy glasses are long gone now, but a large Oktoberfest glass beer stein works well. The toddy rod also doesn’t make the drink hot like a stove or kettle. It has this unique effect of caramelizing and steam-heating the drink. The rod is usually so hot that a thin vapor forms around it, and the drink is heated with steam. It has a different taste from stove-heated drinks. Check out this list here for a list of what beers taste suitable heated and which do not. I’ve ruined many good meals and flips by using a beer that tastes awful warm.
13). Bomb Shot
The bomb shot is a drink served as a half-filled pint glass and a separate shot of alcohol. The pint glass is typically half filled with beer, but other low or no-ABV drinks also work. The shot glass has a higher ABV spirit or liqueur in it, and the shot glass is dropped into the pint glass and the whole drink is consumed at once. Good examples of this style of drink are the Irish Car Bomb, Sake Bomb, and Jägerbomb. As you can see bomb is usually in the drink’s title too.
(The Normal Ones.)
Everyone has their own preferred shaking techniques and style of shaker. And the truth is there is no one right way, just the best way for you. Now some methods are more effective than others in getting specific results. These are the three most common shaking techniques you will see.
1). Standard Shake With Ice
This is your standard vanilla shake with a scoop of ice that everyone does. It works well and produces excellent drinks, and it was the shake I did for over a decade. Simply build your drink in one tin (usually the smaller one, but it doesn’t matter.) and a scoop of ice into the other tin, pour the drink into the tin with ice, seal it, and shake until it’s properly aerated and chilled. Some recommend shaking for 20 seconds, but it depends on how hard you shake. I shake the drink very hard, and within 6 seconds, it’s done. Any more than that and i would be wasting my time. I also happen to be a male with a bit of upper body strength so that I can do that, but when I see others who don’t shake as hard as I do make a drink it takes a little longer. What you are looking for when you shake this way is to feel how cold the tin gets. You’re done shaking this way when the tin gets cold. Not so cold it frost, and your fingers stick to it, but just the right amount of cold. Ice is typically stored at 0°F/-17°C. So if you shake it long enough, the drink will get sub-freezing, which doesn’t make for a good drink. It will be over-diluted and too cold, so learn to feel when the drink is right before freezing. You’ll know how long you should shake based on how you shake.
2). Dry Shake and Reverse Dry Shake
A popular technique for egg white drinks, I feel this shaking method has become obsolete and is surpassed by the next one I will show you. I no longer use this one, but I will tell you how it works. The idea is to increase the time you shake the drink by first shaking it without ice to build a big foamy head and then shaking it with ice to cool it. The reverse dry shake flips the order by shaking with ice, removing the ice and adding the egg whites, then shaking without ice to build a big foamy head. This has been the go-to egg white shaking technique for the last 15 to 20 years, but another shaking technique has come to light that completely blows this method out of the water.
3). Saxe Soda Shake/Whip Shake
Often called a whip shake today, this technique was invented by Deforest Saxe in the 1880s at his soda fountain in Chicago. The Saxe soda shake technique only adds 1 or 2 ice cubes to the shaker and shakes them until they fully dissolve. The main advantage of this shake is it makes impressive and easy foam from egg whites. Using this technique, a Ramos gin fizz is no more complicated than a margarita. If you worry about the cooling capacity of this shake, keep in mind that ice is stored well below freezing, so two fully melted ice cubes are enough to cool the drink to just above freezing. The other advantage of this shake is it controls and limits dilution. Drinks taste better because they have less water. There is a very noticeable flavor and texture difference between the cocktails I make with the Saxe soda shake/whip shake and the standard shake. I use this shake for everything now, and I have tried to shout about how great it is from the mountains, but I have learned it is only for some.
After forcing many people to try the Saxe shaking method, I noticed it only worked well for people who shook hard, like me. The shaking took too long for them, and the dilution was not much better than their more softly shaken drink. The texture was nowhere near as good, but that’s simply an issue with not shaking hard. (I’m not talking about the Japanese hard shake, just how intensely one shakes.) The weakness of this technique is it works best with a Boston shaker and requires an aggressive hard shake. If you’re not shaking hard or you use a cobbler shaker, then it’s a difficult technique to get good results from. It is more advantageous for these individuals to continue doing the standard shake, but the Saxe soda shake is still the absolute best technique for making great foam for egg white cocktails.
3). Tiki Dirty Pour
The Tiki Dirty Pour is a fantastic shaking technique that is useful beyond just tiki drinks. The Tiki Dirty Pour is a pouring technique where you pour the entire contents of the shaker. The drink and ice are both poured into the serving glass. You do not use a strainer with this method. It’s fast and easy, and the same ice you shook with is the same ice that goes into the glass. I’ve noticed this shake works very well with softening boozy drinks. Perhaps this is why it is a go-to shake in the tiki world, as many tiki cocktails are very boozy. A Zombie, which is usually loaded with booze, is delicious and refreshing. I used this technique for Long Island, and they came out amazing. Even my wife, who mostly only drinks hard seltzers, likes my Long Island Iced Tea when I make it using a tiki dirty pour. I like using crushed ice, to begin with, but non-crushed ice works too. Give this a shot and see for yourself. Take a shaken drink that is usually too boozy for you and make it using this method, and I bet it will be much improved.
The Tools Used To Make Cocktails.
SHAKERS & MIXING GLASS
The most common shaker and the best one. It’s easy to open and close, it can make drinks fast, and they tend to be large, so they have a lot of volumes for multiple drinks and pound the hell out of a drink. It’s easy to clean, and no small parts to lose. They are the classic simple shaker, and they work great. Some are half glass and half metal. Dont buy those. Only get the all-metal ones.
In the mid-1800s, the Boston Shaker was the shaker of choice, but that didn’t stop folks from trying to build a better one. Invented by Edward Hauck in 1884, the Cobbler shaker was an improved shaker design by having a built-in strainer on the top. The cobbler shaker is popular, but I prefer the Boston shaker. The cobbler can be difficult to separate when it gets cold, and the tip can easily get lost. That said, try both and see which you prefer.
Soon after the invention of the Boston shaker everyone was trying to improve the design and build a better shaker. The first obvious problem was that half of the shaker was glass, and glass could break, so the Parisian was made out of all metal. The second issue is the finickiness of the seal between the two cups. The Parisian Shaker got a simplified connection, and out of fixing these two improvements, the Parisian Shaker was born. That being said, I have never seen anyone use one of these. Just get an all-metal Boston shaker instead.
The mixing glass is a nice fancy tool for making still clean looking drinks. It adds no bubbles like the shaker and is used for many old-fashioned cocktails. But it’s not necessary. A regular pint glass works too, but a pint glass is more challenging to stir elegantly in. The wide straight sides of the mixing glass make it easier to stir a drink without the spoon banging all over the place.
The bell jigger is the original jigger, and its design is based on the 2 oz Sherry wine glass. In many of the early cocktail books, they never mention a jigger measurement because the jigger did not exist yet. The measurement commonly used in these older books is a wine glass (2 oz) or a half wine glass (1 oz). The metal bell jigger was an improved measuring tool since it had both a wine glass side and a half wine glass side and would not break when dropped.
Even though this is called a Japanese jigger, it was not invented in Japan. It was designed by Cornelius Dungan in 1893 from Chicago, Illinois, as an improvement to the bell jigger. Cornelius found the long narrow cone design easier to use, with fewer spills and more straightforward fractional measurements. And he was right. This is arguably the best jigger. While not as cute as a bell jigger, it is functionally better. It is called a Japanese jigger because, after WWII, American-style bars started popping up all over Japan to service the American troops stationed there. Japanese bartenders recognized how good this jigger style was and refused to use any other. Fast forward to the late 90s, and the American cocktail renaissance is just beginning, and American bartenders visiting Japan rediscover this old jigger design and bring it back to the USA.
Honestly, there is nothing good I can say about the American jigger. Most are flimsy, and they spill easily. If you own one, do yourself a favor, toss it out, and buy a Japanese jigger. This design came from crummy mass production and manufacturers racing to the bottom to make a cheaper Japanese-style jigger. The one in the photo here is an excellent American jigger, and it still spills everywhere just because a shallow bowl with a wide top is difficult to control. I hate this jigger.
The measuring jigger is a single large cup with all the individual units written on it like a measuring cup. It may be my lack of experience with this one, but I find them very slow since I can’t eyeball any of the measurements. I can easily fill a 1 oz jigger halfway and figure I have 1/2 an oz, but I have to look at the lines every time with the measuring jigger. Again it is probably just me, as I have seen some people who are very fast with these.
The flat muddler was initially named the toddy stick and used more for cracking spices than pressing mint leaves. The flat muddler is best used for breaking up sugar cubes or pressing herbs. Use it when you want to avoid pulverizing the item being muddled.
The Grinder muddler is a sharp variation of the flat muddler best used for pulverizing fruit in a glass. The teeth nicely grab onto the lime wedge and smash its rigid body.
Designed in 1892 by William Wright, the Hawthorne strainer was essentially a julep strainer with a large metal coil running around the periphery of it. On the patent, It was said to be “designed to instantly fit any glass.” Wright sold and assigned the patent to Dennis P. Sullivan, who owned the Hawthorne Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts. Sullivan began manufacturing and selling the strainers around the city, and they all advertised the name of his bar on them. Thus this improved cocktail strainer became known as the Hawthorne Strainer.
The first cocktail strainers were standard English tea-straining spoons. During the early days of bartending the craft was still in its infancy, and bartenders used the available tools. The design of the Julep strainer mostly stayed the same as the original tea strainer other than getting larger. The Julep strainer is odd to use with a shaker and works best with a mixing glass. It works best at holding back large clumps of solid ice and not the broken-up fragments of a shaker.
Double/Fine Mesh Strainer
The double strainer is a handy strainer and one you will use all the time. It’s used to catch all the little shards of ice that pass by your main strainer after shaking. I recently started using a strainerless shaking technique that works well for me called the Saxe soda shake, so i don’t use my double strainer much anymore. I will still use it if I shake it with mint or fruit to avoid getting into the drink, but my once most used item now goes mostly unused.
The bar spoon was designed to be a better drink mixing spoon. It had a long stem to let the bartender stir and reach deep into tall glasses without sticking your fingers into it, which is gross to see someone do and makes it worth getting a bar spoon. It is also equally weighted on each side to have a controlled and balanced stir. The typical measurement of the bowl of the bar spoon is one teaspoon (5 mls)
Everyone knows what a peeler is and most likely has one, but in the case of cocktails, you will use this to get a peel of citrus as a garnish. Whether it is an orange peel in an old fashion or a lemon peel in a Holland house, a good peeler will make your job much easier.
Juicing is a pain in the butt and the part of making drinks I dislike the most. Juicers come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s a matter of getting the kind that fits your needs. A small hand-squeezed juice press is suitable for a drink or two. A citrus press is good if you throw parties and make many drinks periodically. And an electric juicer is good if you make a lot of drinks every day. A few brands also sell good bottles of lemon or lime juice that are cost-effective. While they cost less and taste good, they are never as good as freshly squeezed juice. Also, a juicer is only suitable for juicing citrus. If you want to juice other fruit, you must blend it first and then strain it.
The blender is a fantastic bar tool but lives entirely in the world of tiki. You’ll never see a blender at an old fashion bar, but they are the only way to make a perfectly slushy drink. If you want to mix cold fats or oils into a drink, that must be done with a blender, and blended drinks help hide large amounts of booze. The only downside to them is they are very loud. One trick to get around this is to shake it with shaved ice. This gives you the same slushy texture without the noise.
The swizzle stick is pointless when you have a shaker, as the result is the same. The swizzle stick comes from a Caribbean plant named quararibea turbinata, or the Swizzlestick tree. The branches grow together along the trunk, and if you cut the young tree and trim these branches, you get a swizzle stick. Don’t buy a natural wooden swizzle stick. They are super expensive, can break, and are more of a novelty item. If you want one, get a metal one. They cost the same as an imported wooden one and last forever. Unless you live in the Caribbean, having a wooden swizzle stick makes no sense.
Toddy Rod & Flipping Glass
You’ll never see this at any bar, and almost no one has ever heard of a toddy rod and flipping glass. A staple of taverns in colonial America, the toddy rod was used to heat drinks in bars where it was too expensive to run a stove. The toddy rod was used for flipping beers as they started to go flat, and the oversized flipping glass was used to hold a large amount of bubbles flipping released. This is an enjoyable tool, and I have used it much more than I ever thought. Also, this is not an actual vintage flipping glass. Those are long gone, but a large Oktoberfest glass beer stein works well.
What You Are Controlling When You Make A Drink.
Many things are going on when you make a drink, but the two most significant factors that contribute to the taste of a drink are temperature and dilution. A little dilution is essential for softening the drink, but too much makes the drink flat and lifeless. The other is temperature; often, the goal is to make the drink as cold and close to freezing as possible I don’t subscribe to this and personally find cool but not freezing drinks more desirable. It also depends on the drink, where I am, and what I am doing. Most drinks are over-diluted. The current top-ranking post on how to shake recommends using as much ice as possible to get the coldest drink possible. This is terrible advice. Your goal shouldn’t be to make the coldest watery drink possible. The colder a drink gets, the harder it is to taste, so cool the drink, but don’t get it so close to freezing that it’s bland. It also depends on the environment. An ice-cold tiki drink on the beach sounds great, but drinks like the Manhattan benefit from being a little less cold.
This may seem weird, but I have weighed my drinks before and after and found that adding water at 25% of the drink’s initial volume results in a nicely diluted drink. So, for example, if the ingredients come out to 4 oz (120 ml), then 1 oz (30 ml) of dilution is good. Luckily most standard ice cubes are 1/2 oz (15 ml). For any drink less than 4 oz, I use one cube. I’ll use two cubes for any drink between 4 to 6 oz. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it works for me.
Tips For Making Great Drinks.
- Do nothing useless. This quote is from “The Book of the Five Rings”, but it applies to everything and mixing drinks is no exception. Don’t jiggle your arms all weirdly or hold stuff goofy. Sure, it looks cool and helps bring in tips, but if you want to make great drinks, then focus on making great drinks, not showmanship.
- Get a big all-metal Boston shaker. Thats it. That’s the only shaker to buy. It’s not a matter of preference; They work better. The Boston shaker is the best, and drinks mix better in larger shakers than in smaller shakers. Your standard Boston tins are 18 and 28-oz cups. You can buy a cobbler or Parisian shaker if you want, but plan to buy a Boston shaker later once you realize the other shakers stink or you lose the cobbler’s cap.
- Shake the hell out of the drink. A strong hard shake will make a better-tasting drink than a gentle shake.
- Don’t over-ice a drink. A drink should be cool and chilled, but it doesn’t have to be freezing. Too much ice makes for a watery flat drink, and drinks last only a short time. I once discussed this with someone who argued that I don’t put enough ice because after 10- 15 minutes the drink will warm up too much. A drink lasts only a few minutes and should be long gone by then, but a drink with too much ice is terrible from the start. Life isn’t perfect and is full of trade-offs. So what would you rather have? A flat, watery drink that is cold for a long time, or a great drink that isn’t freezing after 5 minutes?
- Always use fresh cold ice. Thats all.
- If you’re not sure what someone likes, ask them. Every drink has countless variations, and the best-made drink is the one each person likes. Some people want different things, and that’s fine. And the truth is no one cares what your opinion is on how to make the best martini or old fashioned. This leads to my final opinion.
- Ignore anyone who tells you there is a right or wrong way to make something. Most people fall into this trap with something they get passionate about. This is the best way to make x, or I have the ultimate technique. I do this too, so ignore me when I make those claims.* It’s not to say the method or recipe they offer isn’t excellent at what it does, but it’s objectively not the end all be all. There are more and less effective ways to accomplish a goal, but nothing is ever purely right or wrong. Find the most effective strategy for you and refine it. Learn what you can from the “experts,” but don’t be fooled into thinking they hold all the answers. Experts are ordinary people like you and me who just happened to practice a skill longer than others. *(Although, in my defense, I do it intentionally to get attention and clickbait. No one clicks on an article titled “I found a very effective technique for mixing egg cocktails that has a few shortcomings but is better than most current solutions, in my opinion.” But folks love “I have the best shaking technique you’ve never heard of!” regardless of the title, you will still learn something useful.)