The Great Debate – Shaken Vs Stirred

This is arguably the most controversial topic in cocktails.  I imagine that many bartenders think Ian Fleming and his creation (James Bond of course) has a lot to answer for for a generation of imbibers wanting drinks (particularly martinis) “shaken, not stirred”.

However, the debate must have started long before that.  After all, the great Harry Craddock advised shaking all martini recipes (Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930), instead of stirring them.  Henrick at Covent Garden Cocktail Club did raise a valid point when I mentioned this: “yes, but he shook everything”.  A quick look through his book and yes, it’s true.  However, if it was good enough for Mr Craddock, it is certainly good enough for the likes of me.

I’ll be honest.  I, as much as I drink cocktails, had never bothered delving into this matter.  I was sceptical that there would actually be a difference, aside from an aesthetic difference.  So the best way to solve a mystery is test it.  Lots of data is needed to draw a conclusion as any scientist will tell you.  Not that I’m a scientist mind you, I was just looking for an excuse to drink.

So what is the science behind it all?

Shaking

Shaking is a violent act of mixing a drink relatively speaking.  It’s not exactly an 18-rated horror movie, but compared to stirring it is.  It introduces air into the mixture and breaks the ice down.  The latter dilutes a drink more whereas the former clouds the drink.  The clouding is far more apparent when using non-clear ingredients.  I realise how stupid that sounds seeing as any opaque ingredients will cloud a drink.  Please bear with me though, I will try and make sense of this later.  Shaking also makes a drink colder.

Some people believe shaking gin is a complete no-no.  This is utter folly according to Diffordsguide (actually I quote “the ridiculous argument that shaking bruises the gin”; Diffordsguide, 2012, page 473).

Stirring

This is the more basic way of mixing a drink.  Granted, shaking isn’t rocket science but the potential for things to go wrong is higher when you’re shaking a receptacle that can be separated.  Not that I’ve had that happen…

As it is so basic, there isn’t a lot of science behind it.  It mixes the drink but does not dilute it as the ice is not chipped during the process.

The real science behind mixing, lies within the vessel used to mix the drinks, with a healthy debate going on within the bartending community.  In this case, a glass or a metal vessel?  It’s that particular issue that has had quite a bit of scientific study applied to it.  But that is not for me to discuss.

Shaking vs Stirring

So what is the actual difference?  The key difference is that shaking gives you the same results quicker than stirring.  I.e. your mixed, chilled cocktail.  According to Diffordsguide, 15 to 20 seconds of shaking will give you the same degree of cooling and dilution as 90 to 120 seconds of stirring.  No drink is stirred for that long (bar perhaps the Old Fashioned), usually around the 35 to 40 second mark.

The next difference is the aesthetic aspect of the drink.  Shaking produces a thinner drink and mouth feel as well as clouding the drink (more on that later).  Stirring makes for a thicker drink and due to air not being added as it is in shaking, gives a perfectly clear drink.  That is of course, if the ingredients are clear.  However, stirring is saved for clear cocktails so that last sentence was pretty redundant.

If you really want to get into the science stuff, the University of Western Ontario studied the antioxidant properties of martinis.  They determined that a shaken martini can break down hydrogen peroxide better than a stirred one can.  The shaken martini left behind 0.072% of the peroxide behind compared to the 0.157% the stirred martini, meaning that the stirred martini has more antioxidants (Hirst, M.; Trevithick, J. R. (18 December 1999). “Shaken, not stirred: bio-analytical study of the antioxidant activities of martinis”. British Medical Journal 319 (7225): 1600–2. PMC 28303).  Sounds very new-age healthy, organic, free-rangey to me.  I don’t give damn about antioxidants – this is a cocktail, not a health boosting smoothie.

So now it comes to bartending “law”: drinks with clear ingredients should be stirred and drinks with cloudy ingredients should be shaken.  However, rules are there to be broken.  So I decided to put it to the test.

The Testing

I needed to approach this rather carefully to ensure that I could compare the two methods and be able to discern between them.  So I chose two cocktails that I drink regularly (I know how they taste and I can make them identically each time) and make them both shaken and stirred.

So I chose a Vesper and my preferred martini (5:1 ratio, meaning two and a half measures of gin and half of dry vermouth).  I didn’t include any garnishes so that they did not affect the taste and skew my judgement of the mixing methods and all four drinks were double strained.  I then of course sampled both side by side so that I could make immediate comparisons.  All in the name of bringing you the finest reporting.  At least, that’s the official line I’m taking on this.

The First Test – Dry Martini

5:1 Ratio.  Stirred on the right, shaken on the left.

5:1 Ratio. Stirred on the right, shaken on the left.

Now this one threw me.  They looked exactly the same, shattering my expectation of shaking creating a cloudy drink.  Then it occurred to me – I used two perfectly clear ingredients.  No way was this going to create a cloudy drink.  So that was the first test out of the way.  How about texture?  Not a single bit of difference between the two that I could detect.  So there was one test left to redeem this experiment – the taste.

Luckily there was a difference.  The stirred one had a much stronger taste of gin.  This wasn’t completely unexpected.  Shaking dilutes the drink more.  However, I did wonder if I had somehow screwed up the measurements.  However, it was a difference between the two and that counts!

The Second Test – Vesper

A classic Vesper.  Stirred on the right, shaken on the left.

A classic Vesper. Stirred on the right, shaken on the left.

Now this was a more conclusive test I’m very pleased to announce!

It’s not quite as apparent in the picture as it was directly in front of me, but the shaken drink was indeed cloudier than the stirred drink.  Now the reason I think this differed from the dry martini in becoming cloudy, was the lillet blanc.  Despite it being perfectly clear, gin, vermouth and vodka are colourless, hence the clear martini and the cloudy Vesper (I told you I’d get around to explaining it).  The texture was different too.  As explained earlier, shaking makes a thinner drink and it was no different here.  The shaken drink was thinner than the stirred drink.

Finally the taste.  The shaken drink was much smoother than the stronger gin flavour coming through in the stirred drink.  Again, this is down to the dilution shaking creates.

The Conclusion

To my surprise, there was a difference in the drinks and a very noticeable one at that.  I do wonder if my shaky hand at measuring may have affected my results, but seeing as I was using a thimble measure, I don’t think that could have made too much of a difference.  I do think that this will require some further experimenting from myself and from professional hands.  Honestly, I’ll give any excuse to go to Covent Garden Cocktail Club!

So where do I stand on shaking or stirring?  As I mentioned before, rules are made to be broken.  Any schoolchild or politician worth their salt will tell you that.  There is no reason that a stirred drink cannot be shaken and vice versa.  I will say that if a recipe contains egg, milk or cream then it should be shaken, I’ll concede that point.  Harry Craddock recommended shaking martini recipes and who are any of us to argue with him?  Simon Difford prefers his shaken (Diffordsguide, 2012, page 473), I prefer mine stirred (not that I’m saying my opinion is worth that of Mr Craddock’s or Mr Difford’s).

So what it actually comes down to, is personal taste.  Cocktails are all about experimenting and without breaking rules, progress will never be made.  Try stirring a Margarita or shaking a martini.  Heck, try shaking a Manhattan!  Go and mix it up and have your drink as you want it.

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