Looking like a pro behind your home bar is easy once you learn how to stir a cocktail. Part of the mystique of a great craft cocktail bar is the sight and sound of great bartenders stirring drinks in mixing glasses. That tinkling sound of ice brushed against the interior of the mixing glass or glass shaker builds up the anticipation of the next great cocktail to fill your glass.
Learning to stir cocktails at home with a bar spoon elevates your experience making and serving cocktails, whether for yourself or friends and family.
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Tools You’ll Need to Stir a Cocktail
While you can stir a cocktail at home in a mason jar using a chopstick, if you’ve searched for “how to stir a cocktail” it’s likely you want to use more professional tools to create and serve a cocktail.
To stir a cocktail the way you see it done in bars and restaurants you’ll need two tools: a bar spoon and a mixing glass or shaker.
About the Bar Spoon
A bar spoon is a long-handled spoon, usually with a twisted stem that’s 12-14” long. It’s typically weighted at the end, either to use that end as a quick muddler or to balance the spoon so it’s easier to use while stirring drinks.
The twist found commonly on bar spoons makes it easy to use with just a flick of the fingers. The long spiral stem also assists when you need to create a float on a cocktail with a layer of ingredients sitting at the top of the cocktail. Pouring the liquid along the stem allows it to drop gently to the surface and float on the top.
About the Mixing Glass
A mixing glass or a shaking tin can be used as the vessel to stir a cocktail. If you use a mixing glass or the glass end of a Boston shaker you’ll be able to see the cocktail change color in the glass as you build it.
The earliest mixing glasses were pint glasses, either glass or the pint-sized metal vessels used as part of a set of mixing tins. Later, mixing glasses, sometimes called mixing beakers, were developed. They have the capacity to handle the volume of more than one drink and are more sturdy than a metal mixing tin.
The mixing glass is built for creating cocktails with a sturdy base (to handle muddling and lots of ice) and straight sides to make stirring cocktails easier and pouring neater. They’re also hard to tip over than a glass or metal shaker.
How to Stir a Cocktail
Stirring a cocktail isn’t difficult, but it takes a little practice to learn. Once you have it mastered, it’s an effortless way to stir cocktails for yourself and your guests. The easiest way to learn this is to take your mixing glass and fill it with ice and a bit of water.
You can learn with actual cocktail ingredients, but since it’ll take more than just 30 seconds to learn you might practice with water or juice to learn.
- Add your cocktail ingredients, or if practicing, a bit of water, and fill the mixing glass 2/3rds full of ice.
- Hold the bar spoon near the top, loosely between your thumb and forefinger, and let the handle sit between your third and fourth fingers like in the picture.
- Place the spoon in the mixing glass so that the outside of the spoon rests against the inside of the mixing glass.
- Rotate the spoon along the inside of the mixing glass. You want to rotate the ice in the mixing glass to create a sort of funnel (like you seen in a blender) that pulls the spirits through the ice, diluting and chilling the cocktail at the same time.
- As you get better at the technique, pulling and pushing your fingers forward and backward with that loose grip on the spoon is all you need for the spoon to swirl around the inside of glass.
How to Strain a Cocktail
You’ll use a strainer whether you stir or shake a cocktail. If you use a mixing glass, you might want to purchase a julep strainer – it looks like a large slotted spoon. Julep strainers are made to fit in the top of a mixing glass to hold back the ice as you strain the cocktail into its glass.
There’s a debate over whether the spoon should be held against the ice with the spoon curving up or down. Most resources online say to hold the spoon so that the bowl of the spoon faces the ice. However, I’ve seen both done at bars, and for me, it’s a matter of which is easier to hold with your hands.
You can also strain with a Hawthorne strainer (developed in the 1880s), which is a flat paddle with a handle and a coil on one side. The coil filters out ice and pulp for cocktails as they’re strained into a cocktail glass.
To strain with a Hawthorne strainer, place the coil side of the paddle into the top of the strainer as shown in the picture, then hold it to the top of the mixing glass with your forefinger as you pour the cocktail into the glass.
Tips and Tricks to Stirring a Drink with a Bar Spoon
Since you’re running the outside of the spoon along the smooth inside of the mixing glass, this should be quiet, with just a small tinkle of ice as it rotates with the liquid and chills down. Remember that you want to rotate the spoon on the inside of the mixing glass, not pull the spoon through the middle of the glass as if you’re stirring a batter.
Chill your mixing glass before you use it if you’re using a glass vessel. Chilling the glass means that the ice only has to work to chill the cocktail inside it rather than mixing glass and the liquid.
Make sure you put plenty of ice in the mixing glass. If you’re making a single cocktail, the ice should fill the glass ½ to ⅔ of the way to the top. Don’t skimp on the ice.
Don’t skimp on stirring. Most cocktails are stirred for 30 seconds, at least, to make sure the ice has ice to chill and dilute the cocktail to the proper temperature and dilution.
If you want to master stirring two cocktails at once, you’ll need longer-handled bar spoons – 16-18 inches. Those will be long enough to stir two mixing glasses with one hand.
When to Shake and When to Stir a Cocktail
“Shaken, not stirred” – that phrase might be the bane of any craft bartender’s existence. Bond may have preferred his Martinis shaken, but a proper Martini would be stirred. Here are a few tips I use to know when to stir a cocktail and when to shake a cocktail:
- If the cocktail is made up of spirits and syrups, you want to stir the cocktail. This means that Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Martinis, and the like are all made stirred in a mixing glass or pint glass.
- If the cocktail has fresh juices, egg, or cream, in it you’ll want to shake it. Shaking a cocktail with ice aerates the cocktail. That integrates juice with the spirits better than stirring it. Both cream and egg white benefit from the emulsifying and aerating qualities of a shaken drink. It gives egg white cocktails that creamy, silky mouthfeel.
Just remember, if it has juice, cream or egg, you shake!
How Long to Stir a Cocktail
The length of time to stir a cocktail depends on two things – how much time it needs to chill and how much time it needs to dilute to the proper strength. The reason we use ice to chill cocktails is two-fold. We need to drop the temperature of the cocktail and also dilute it.
Dilution adds water to a cocktail – between 20-30% of a cocktail’s volume comes from the water added via stirring or shaking. It also changes the flavor of a drink. It drops the proof of the drink, brings out some of the sweeter flavors and the flavor compounds that are water-soluble.
If you want to test this out, mix up the ingredients for your Manhattan or Martini in a container without ice and put it in the freezer for about 20 minutes. Take a sip of it. Then put it in a mixing glass with ice, stir it for 30 seconds, and then strain it into a cocktail glass and take another sip.
You’ll find it easier to sip since the proof is lower. Subtle notes from the vermouth and the spirit will be more discernable, and the aroma of the garnish will be easier to detect with a lower-proof cocktail.
Classic Drinks to Practice Stirring a Cocktail
Many classic drinks are made with a mixing glass and bar spoon. Once you’ve mastered your bar spoon technique with water or juice it’s time to test it out with cocktails. So get out your spirits, mixing glass, and bar spoon to make a few stirred cocktails to practice.
Here are some of my favorites: