Once upon a time, even your favorite bartender had absolutely no clue how to use a cocktail shaker. That’s because, when it comes to making drinks, everyone starts from scratch. So if you don’t know how to make a Gimlet or Negroni, don’t get sad and decide to lie down until the feeling goes away. Instead, get a handle on these basic and essential bartending techniques.
Bartending 101 begins with shaking, stirring, and garnishing. These are the three most important bartending techniques (by far), and they’ll make the difference between a decent cocktail and a great one. If you’re worried they’re too difficult, don’t be. These techniques are pretty straightforward, and all you need is a bit of practice before your muscle memory takes over and you’re shaking drinks like you were born on the floor of a cocktail bar.
When you’re ready to move on, check out Bartending 201: Egg Whites, Salt Rims, And Rinsing.
Before you get started, you need the right equipment. If you’d like to follow our lead, here’s everything we (and a lot of bartenders) use.
How To Shake A Drink
Knowing when to shake a drink - and when to stir - is one of the first things you need to learn about making cocktails. Fortunately, it isn’t tough to figure out. If a cocktail has juice, shake it. There are a few exceptions to this rule - like a Vesper (a shaken cocktail with no juice) or a Harvey Wallbanger (which sounds like a lazy alias we’d use at a restaurant, but is actually a stirred cocktail with juice) - but it’s generally airtight.
There are two main ways to mix a cocktail: shaking and stirring. A shaken cocktail gets colder than a stirred cocktail, and it also takes on a little more water as well as some tiny shards of ice. This results in a well-chilled drink that’s refreshing and considerably diluted (in a pleasant sort of way).
Step One: Find A Shaker
As you’ll see on our Tools Page, we like an all-metal Boston shaker. Why? Because they’re easy to use and nearly indestructible, and they hold more volume that most other shakers. Also, the built-in strainers you see on other shakers are never fine enough. But if you have one of those bowling pin-shaped cobbler shakers, that’s perfect too.
Step Two: Add Your Ingredients
Before you add ice to a shaker, measure and add your ingredients. If you’re using a Boston shaker, pour them in the smaller half.
Step Three: Add Ice
How much ice do you need? That depends on how much liquid is in your shaker. Just imagine you’re building an undersea mountain of ice. You want the tip of that mountain to be just slightly above the liquid in your shaker. For one drink, this is typically one healthy scoop, one and a half handfuls, or about six normal-sized cubes from a tray in your freezer.
Step Four: Put The Top On Your Shaker
The top of a Boston shaker is the larger half, and to put it on, set it at about a 15-degree angle on top of the smaller half, then smack the top with the heel of your hand. It should form a tight seal. For any other shaker, the closing process should be self-evident.
Step Five: Shake
Finally, shake your cocktail. If you’ve never done this before (or want to look like an old-timey bartender in a black-and-white movie starring Carol Lombard), use both hands. It’s easier, and it’ll prevent the two halves of your shaker from coming apart. Next, move the shaker up and down like it’s a percussive instrument (it sort of is), sending those ice cubes from one end of the shaker to the other.
How Long Should You Shake A Cocktail?
The ideal shake time depends on how many drinks you’re making, how much ice you used, how large those ice cubes are, and how hard you’re shaking. But this isn’t math class, and we aren’t going to get into all those nitpicky variables right now. Just shake your drink reasonably hard (it should feel like a workout), and go for about 15 seconds, at least.
How To Stir A Drink
First off, you should know which cocktails you need to stir. And there’s a very easy rule for this. If a drink is all alcohol, stir it. A Manhattan, for example, or a Negroni.
Stirring is gentler. Just think of the computer game Oregon Trail. If you move at a slow pace in that game (the equivalent of stirring), your trip will take longer, but your party (or cocktail) will arrive mostly intact. But if you choose a strenuous pace, (the equivalent of shaking), you’ll reach your destination sooner, but you’ll also lose some passengers (or flavor) along the way.
Step One: Get A Bar Spoon
In order to stir a drink properly, you should really have a bar spoon. Not sure what that is? Picture a teaspoon with the world’s longest handle.
Step Two: Find A Mixing Glass
Next, you’re going to need a mixing glass. This is essentially just a big cup that holds your ingredients, and there are plenty of fancy varieties out there. But if you don’t feel like getting fancy, just use a pint glass or the smaller half of your Boston shaker.
Step Three: Add Ice
Fill your mixing glass with ice. If you aren’t sure how much to use, just make sure that your ice cubes stack up until they’re just peeking out over the liquid in your mixing glass. For a single drink, this should be about one and a half handfuls.
Step Four: Stir
Now the fun part. Sort of. Stirring is actually kind of boring when you’re a bartender, but it can also be soothing and meditative. To start, you want to hold your barspoon near the top, with a loose grip between your ring and middle fingers. Next, submerge it in your cocktail. The back of your spoon should come into contact with your mixing glass. Now, push the spoon in a clockwise motion using a little force from your middle finger and a subtle circular motion in your wrist - the entire time keeping that back of the spoon against that mixing glass. That’s how you stir.
How Long Should You Stir A Cocktail?
This question is actually a little complicated, because it depends on how big your ice cubes are (which affects the total surface area of ice that comes into contact with your drink). If you’re using crushed ice (don’t do that), your stir time will only be a few seconds, because you risk diluting your drink if you do it for too long. But with one large cube, it might be half a minute. If you have standard-sized cubes - from a tray, for example - you should stir a single cocktail for about 20 seconds. So that’s our final, uncomplicated answer: 20 seconds.
How To Garnish
Most cocktails get a garnish, and there are several reasons for that. First off, they bring a little something extra to the table. An additional scent, another flavor, or both. And, perhaps more importantly, they make your cocktail look nice. Take pride in your work.
If you read our cocktail tutorials, you’re going to come across a lot of sentences like, “Finally, garnish with a lemon twist.” But what’s a twist? It’s just a thin strip of citrus peel.
When cutting a twist, you want it to be thin enough that it just barely grazes the bitter white pith under peel. Cut it too thin, and it’ll break when you try to use it - and if you cut it too thick, you’ll feel like you have a chunk of compost in your drink. To get started, just place a knife almost parallel to the surface of your citrus, and shimmy it along the peel, using the curvature of the fruit to achieve the ideal width. Alternatively, just buy a y-shaped vegetable peeler. It’s sort of like a cheat code.
How Do You Use A Twist?
So you cut yourself a twist. Great work. Now take that twist, hold it peel-side down a few inches above the surface of your drink, and give it a gentle squeeze. You should notice a small spritz of citrus oil. After that, run the twist around the rim of your drink (for added flavor, and also because little rituals like this are therapeutic), then toss it in.
Can You Light A Twist On Fire?
Sort of, yeah. If you heat your twist briefly over an open flame, then squeeze your twist so that the citrus oils spritz through the flame, you’ll produce a small fireball. Try it at the next baby shower you attend.
A wheel is just a cross-section of citrus. When you cut one, you want it to be as thin as possible without being too translucent. That way, you can float your wheel on the top of your drink. How fun.
If you hear us telling you to use a “slice,” it’ll probably be an orange slice - and all you need to do for that is cut an orange wheel, then cut that wheel in half.
You probably know how to cut a wedge of citrus. If you don’t, just halve your lemon or lime length-wise, set it flat-side down, then slice it lengthwise until you have four equal-sized wedges.
When we tell you to garnish something with a mint sprig, we don’t mean one sickly stalk of mint that started wilting several days ago. Use fresh mint, and get a big, bountiful sprig. Better yet, get two bountiful sprigs, trim the stems so they fit in your drink, and arrange the sprigs like a bouquet in the side of your glass. But before you do that, give your mint a smack. That’ll help release the minty oils, and it’ll also make it look like you’ve been bartending since you were seven years old.