To the uninitiated, learning the bartending techniques essential to the art of mixing drinks can seem like a monster task. To shake or to stir? Free pour or jigger? What should I use for a garnish?
These are all legitimate questions and ones that I used to ask myself when I was a young bartender. When I was starting out, I used to watch my more experienced colleagues expertly shaking Cosmos whilst stirring Martinis and wonder if I’d ever get there.
But like most things in life, as a beginner, the path to competency always seems a lot harder than what it actually is. And learning the art of mixing drinks is no exception.
The truth is, there aren’t that many cocktail making techniques a bartender needs to know. And these techniques are relatively simple to understand & learn.
So that’s what we’re going to go through today. We’re going to explore the most important cocktail making techniques that bartenders use around the world. We’ll look at why we use them and how to do them so that you can confidently make fantastic drinks for the rest of your life.
Let’s get to it.
1) The Pour
There are two pouring techniques bartenders use behind the bar. One calls for a jigger (a bartender’s measuring tool) and the other ‘free pours’ the liquid directly into the glass/shaker, measuring by eye or by counting. There are solid reasons behind using both of these techniques.
It’s generally considered that ‘free pouring’ is the faster way to make drinks because you can use both hands to pour multiple bottles at once. However, free pouring is also considered to be less accurate.
It’s important to realize that small inaccuracies can quickly add up and imbalance a cocktails flavor profile. So depending on where you work, accurately measuring liquor can be essential.
That’s where pouring with a jigger comes in handy because a jigger makes it very easy to get the measurements right. Although it takes longer to make drinks, at least you know you’ll be balancing it right.
With that being said, there are trained ‘free-pour’ bartenders out there who can accurately measure their pours down to the millimeter. But it takes time to get to that level and it usually involves some form of rigorous free-pouring training & testing.
Between the 2, I think bartenders should learn how to do both. Start with using a jigger (most venues require you to use them anyway) and move onto free-pouring once you have a better feel for measurements and if the bar you work for lets you.
As far as how you hold the bottle, it doesn’t really matter as long as you hold it by the neck and you have a finger or thumb on top of the speed pourer to prevent it from falling off.
2) Frosting Glassware
Frosting glassware isn’t a ‘technique,’ it’s more of a best practice. It doesn’t require any skill, you just need to know why you do it and how to do it.
The reason why we chill glassware is because it helps keep cocktails crisp & cool for longer. This is especially important for drinks served without ice, like a Martini or Manhattan.
There are 2 mains ways to chill glassware. The first is by storing your glassware in a fridge/freezer. This will obviously keep the glasses cool. But often, there won’t be enough space in a bar’s fridge/freezer to store a bunch of glassware there.
So the second ‘technique’ is to fill the glass with ice & water before you start making the cocktail. By the time you’ve finished shaking or stirring, your glass should be adequately ‘cooled.’ Then just throw away the ice & water and your glass should be ready.
Muddling is a cocktail making technique that’s used when you want to crush an ingredient to extract its juices & flavors. It’s commonly used for ingredients like citrus wedges, softer fruits, and certain spices like ginger.
The tool bartenders use to muddle ingredients is appropriately called a muddler (a long stick). But you could also use the back of a bar spoon (commonly used for ingredients like ginger).
Performing this technique is simple. Place the ingredient you want to muddle in the bottom of your mixing glass, grab your muddler, push down & crush the ingredients until you’ve extracted its juices.
The Mojito, Caprioska, and Capriniha are all cocktails that muddling is commonly used for.
Similarly to frosting glassware, you can’t really call building a ‘technique.’ It’s more of a method than a mixing technique. Building means that you pour all of the ingredients into the glass you’ll be serving it in as opposed to preparing the drink in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass beforehand.
You simply ‘build’ the ingredients on top of each other.
Building is a quick & easy method for making cocktails and it’s usually used with simple drinks that only have a few ingredients. The tequila sunrise and Negroni are good examples of cocktails where the building method is used.
The majority of cocktails you’ll be making throughout your bartending career will require shaking. The reason why we shake cocktails is because it’s one of the fastest ways to mix ingredients together, whilst simultaneously cooling & diluting the drink down.
Some bartenders think that how you shake a cocktail matters and there are even different shaking techniques because of this.
But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter how you shake a cocktail, as long as you shake it vigorously for around 10-15 seconds and follow the correct drink-mixing procedures.
The correct drink mixing procedures look something like this:
- Pour the ingredients into the cocktail shaker
- Fill the shaker to the brim with ice
- Seal the shaker either with the lid or tin (if using a Boston shaker)
- Firmly hold the shaker, point the end AWAY from the customer – You never know what might happen and you don’t want to accidentally shoot the cocktail shaker onto the customer…
- Shake HARD for 10 – 15 seconds
- Remove the tin by gently tapping the top of the shaker with the palm of your hand
- Strain (see below) your cocktail into a frosted glass (see above)
You also need to be familiar with the dry shake. A dry shake is used when you’re using ingredients like egg whites or cream and you want to produce a thicker foam. Dry shaking means that you shake the mix first before you introduce the ice. This helps aerate the mix and produces a thicker foam.
Some bartenders will also throw the spring from their hawthorn strainer into the mix to help aerate it even more. Personally, I’ve found that this unnecessary unless you struggle to shake REALLY hard.
For a more advanced look at shaking cocktails, take a look at Difford’s Guide’s article here.
Stirring cocktails is another common cocktail making technique that bartenders use & love. The infamous Martini immediately comes to mind when I think of a drink that requires stirring.
Similarly to shaking, stirring is used to mix ingredients together & cool the drink down, but it’s done at a much more gentle pace. Stirred cocktails aren’t as heavily diluted as shaken cocktails either.
To stir, fill your mixing glass with ice, grab your bar spoon/metal rod, insert it into the glass and STIR! Holding the stem in-between your middle two fingers and circling with your wrist (as opposed to your arm) will help you achieve mastery (see video below).
A good rule of thumb is to stir until the ‘bite’ in the back of your throat from the alcohol has somewhat disappeared. That usually takes around 30 seconds.
To Shake or to Stir?
Whether or not you shake or stir a cocktail is a commonly debated subject in the world of mixing drinks. And to be honest, I’ve heard convincing arguments from both sides so I’m not going to go into them right now. Here are a couple of interesting articles if you want to look into further:
- A Scientific Argument for Never Shaking Gin
- Does Gin Bruise?
- When to Shake, When to Stir: Or, How James Bond Destroyed Drinks
I’m not entirely convinced of the bruising arguments, but the points of dilution, temperature, texture, and appearance all make a lot of sense.
Despite the on-going debates, there are general practices that most bartenders follow:
- You shake cocktails when they contain fruit juices, dairy, or egg.
- You stir cocktails when there’s nothing but alcohol and you don’t want to over dilute or over chill the drink so that its ingredients’ flavours really shine.
At the end of the day, some cocktails are expected to be stirred and others are expected to be shaken. But as far I’m concerned, as long as you make the drink how your customer wants it, it doesn’t really matter!
Rolling is a mixing technique in-between shaking and stirring. It mixes ingredients more thoroughly than stirring does, but it’s still more gentle than shaking. This is a great technique to use when you want to mix ingredients reasonably well, but you don’t want to over dilute the drink.
To roll a drink simply means that you pour the mix from one vessel (usually a shaking tin) to another. Do this 6-10 times and your cocktail should be ready.
The Bloody Mary cocktail is commonly made using the rolling technique.
Straining a drink means that you pass the mix through ‘strainers’ to remove any solids that you don’t want entering the final cocktail. These solids could be ice cubes, ice shards, pulp, muddled fruit, etc.
There are 3 different straining tools that bartenders commonly use:
- The julep strainer,
- The hawthorn strainer, and
- The fine strainer.
The julep strainer is most used when cocktails are stirred using a Boston or Japanese mixing glass. Simply place the julep strainer inside the glass with the curved side facing up, and pour the mix through the strainer (holding it in place) into its final glass.
The hawthorn strainer is commonly used with the fine strainer to ‘double-strain’ (also known as fine-strain) a cocktail after it has been shaken. The fine strainer is needed because the hawthorn strainer can’t stop the smaller solids (shards of ice, fruit pulp, etc) from entering the drink, but the fine strainer can.
Double straining is almost always used with shaken drinks that don’t call for ice in their final glass (Cosmo, Margarita, Aviation, etc).
To perform the double strain, place the hawthorn strainer on top of the Boston shaker, hold the tin in one hand with a finger on top keeping the hawthorn strainer in place. With the other hand, hold the fine strainer over the glass and pour the mix through it.
You can also single strain drinks with the hawthorn strainer. This is commonly done when you’re pouring the mix over ice, and you’re not concerned about pulp, muddled fruit, or ice-shards entering the drink.
You should never strain a cocktail using the bottom of your cocktail shaker. Not only is it unhygienic, but it also looks lazy and unprofessional.
Layering is a bartending technique that involves gently pouring different colored liquids on top of each other so that you can see the separation between them. A great example of this is the Pousse-cafe cocktail.
To achieve this effect, hold a bar spoon millimeters away from the top of the drink, and gently pour (layer) the liquid onto the bar spoon so that each consecutive liquid floats on top of the other. This effect can be hard to achieve as it requires a certain level of finesse which makes it easy to mess up.
The order in which you layer liquids matters as the density of each liquid is different. This means that some liquids will float on top of each other, whilst others won’t. As a general rule of thumb, the more sugar there is in a liquid, the heavier it will be. And the more alcohol in a liquid, the lighter it will be.
If you’ve got Gary Regan’s book, ‘The Joy of Mixology,’ you’ll be able to find a comprehensive table presenting the densities of the different liquors & liqueurs that will help you when you’re layering different drinks.
Blending simply means mixing drinks by throwing the ingredients into an electronic blender and pressing GO!
It’s used when you want to mix heavier ingredients (fruits, ice-cream, etc) and you to achieve a thicker/fuller texture. Clearly, it doesn’t require any skill so it’s an easy one to get right!
Blending is also used to make frozen cocktails (e.g. frozen margarita) by adding crushed ice to the mix.
Garnishing is the practice of adding something to the final drink to make it look nicer and/or add something extra to indulge the senses of taste & smell. That could be a citrus twist, lighting the drink on fire, dropping in an olive, or something else entirely.
Nowadays, there are so many different ways you can garnish a cocktail that the subject deserves an entire article of its own. So rather than go through them all now, I’m only going to mention the ones you’ll use most often.
- Dropping – This simply means dropping whatever garnish you’re using into the cocktail.
- Twisting – Twisting involves twisting a citrus peel over a cocktail to spray its scent over the drink, followed by dropping the twisted citrus into it.
- Floating – Floating means to gently place the garnish on top of the cocktail so it floats on top of the liquid.
- Rimming – Rimming means layering the rim of the glass with salt or sugar to give the cocktail an extra kick. You do this by rubbing citrus juice onto the rim of the glass first (it helps the powder stick) and then layering the salt or sugar on top.
- Flaming orange – Similar to a twist, but this involves heating up an orange peel first and then spraying its scent over the cocktail. It produces a unique, toasty, citrusy scent.
If you have any other garnishing techniques that you think should be a part of this list of the most important, make sure you let me know in the comments section below.
The Path to Mastery
Once you have a solid grasp of all of these techniques, you can ramp up your performance by using them together. You could shake 2 cocktails at once, shake 1 whilst you stir another (a show of impressive physical dexterity!), shake whilst you garnish, etc, etc.
It’s ok to get creative here :-).
From there, the path to mastery moves beyond technique. Mastery in making cocktails requires an intimate understanding of all the products you use and how they mix together. From fruits to liquor, to bitters, to liqueurs, to sweeteners, citrus, etc.
Unfortunately, the only way you can get to this kind of level is through study, practice, and hard work. But that’s what makes it worth it.
Good luck! And let me know if you’ve got any question in the comments section below.