Confused About When to Stir a Cocktail and When to Shake It? Michael Hughes Explains.

Photos by Justin Fox Burks

While judging summer cocktails for the Memphis Flyer’s cover story this week, I asked fellow judge Michael Hughes to explain why some cocktails are shaken, and others are stirred. Hughes is the general manager of Joe’s Wines & Liquors and a cocktail expert, so I figured he could clear up my confusion. His explanation follows, but here’s a hint: I’ve been bruising my martinis all along.


I’ve always been confused about when to shake a drink and when to stir it. Can you explain?

Hughes: For me it's simple. If the drink in question is entirely alcohol (Manhattan, Negroni, etc.), I always stir. Stirred drinks are ones that are for sipping not gulping, and so you want to preserve the texture. Stirring cools down a cocktail in a much gentler fashion and allows for better control of the dilution. 

All cocktails need a certain amount of dilution; otherwise we wouldn’t be cooling them with ice in the first place. I use the shake when the drink recipe has any kind of juice, non-alcoholic sweetener such as a shrub or simple syrup, or egg white. The reason to employ the shake is for emulsification, as well as chilling and dilution. 


So a classic gin martini, for example, should only be stirred?

Absolutely. A classic gin martini should also only use good vermouth such as Imbue or Dolin.  Bad vermouth equals bad martini.


Does shaking instead of stirring really impact the flavor?

It can mute the flavor yes, but it also effects the texture. The best test is to ask a bartender to serve you a Manhattan shaken and one stirred and taste them side by side.  The difference is obvious when tasted. 


If so, why do most bars these days shake instead of stir?

It could purely be ease, speed, preference, presentation or because their bar crowd just expects them to.


I do love those little chips of ice in my martini. Is there any way to keep a stirred martini icy cold without ruining it?

Those ice chips are going to melt quickly, so the flavor will actually be more diluted than you think. If you stir a drink properly (I stir for at least 30 seconds), it will stay cool enough. 


When you stir a cocktail, does it matter what kind of utensil you use? I always use a table knife, and that seems, well, a little pedestrian.

You can buy a long handled bar spoon at Lit for very cheap. The long handle allows for better control. Or you can buy a very expensive really cool one off the Cocktail Kingdom or Boston Shaker websites.


And finally, is there anything else I should know related to stir versus shake?

Get outside of your comfort zone and experiment with all the new, unique, and exciting spirits that are out on the market. Try your hand at old recipes and new ones as well.


Hughes also shared two cocktail recipes: one shaken and one stirred. When you check out the ingredients, it’s easy to understand which technique to use.


Valleys (A Shaken Cocktail)


1.5 ounces Osocalis Rare Alambic Brandy

.25 ounce lemon juice

.25 ounce Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

.25 Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao

.25 ounce Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth

Egg white

1 dash Fee Brother’s Rhubarb Bitters

1 dash Fee Brother’s Bitters


Add ingredients to a dry shaker. Shake vigorously to emulsify the egg white into the drink. Fill shaker with ice. Shake to chill, combine, emulsify, and dilute. Strain into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with an edible flower such as a Bachelor’s Button from Delta Sol Farms. The reason to shake here is because there is lemon juice and egg white, so the drink needs to be properly emulsified.


Belly (A Stirred Cocktail available at Felicia Suzanne’s)

2 ounces Prichard’s Fine Rum

1 ounce Dolin Rouge Vermouth

House made Allan Benton Bacon Bitters

Orange Peel


Add first three ingredients to an ice filled cocktail shaker. Stir for at least 30 seconds to chill, dilute, and combine. Strain into an ice filled old fashioned glass. Express the orange oils from the peel into the drink. Curl the peel up and place it into the center of the glass between cubes to hold it upright.

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