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How to Mix Drinks

This bartender shows a confident smile, which is a big part of the job, that only comes with practical experience behind the bar. (© aksakalko/123RF photo)

To be a bartender you must master the four main mixing techniques.

This is where the booze hits the shaker. This article guides you through the four main ways to mix drinks. It also covers the language that bartenders use, and how to use the cocktail shaker like a pro.

Bartending 101

There are four main ways to mix drinks. They are Build, Stir, Shake and Blend. Other lesser used methods include rolling and swizzling, but they are rarely used compared to the main four.

All drinks that are normally shaken, or stirred, can be made on the rocks in a rock glass, if that’s what your guest wants. For stir drinks, build them on the rocks and gently stir in the serving glass. For shake drinks, do not shake and strain, shake and then pour. If there is a surplus for the rock glass, strain the liquid into the glass first, then top it off with the ice.

Building Cocktails

The term build comes from the way the drink is assembled. It means that you pour one ingredient on top of the other, in the same glass that it will be served in. The build order is ice, syrup, juice, spirits, soda.

Ice is scooped into the serving glass, which is most often a rock, highball, or collins glass. Add any syrup and juice the recipe calls for. Then add the liquor and put the soda on top. Sometimes the recipe calls for a gentle, or slight stir before adding the garnish. This is done using the bar spoon in a gentle up and down motion.

Sometimes you’ll be asked for a single shot of a spirit, like a shot of whiskey, or a straight vodka. In bartender lingo, it means just the spirit in a shot glass. So no water, ice, mixer or garnish, just the liquor served in a shot glass.

That said, a lot of people are unaware of the proper terminology. So to be sure, ask if they want their shot; neat (without ice), water back (a glass of water on the side) or on the rocks (with ice).

All single spirits on the rocks, like scotch on the rocks, are built by scooping ice into the rock glass and pouring the spirit in a circular motion on top of the ice. It is served without a garnish, but always include a swizzle stick, so the guest can stir it to their preferred dilution.

Highballs consist of one spirit and one mixer, like Rum & Coke, or Rye & 7. All highballs are built on the rocks (with ice) in a highball, or collins glass, unless the guest requests it straight up (without ice). They are usually served with a straw, or swizzle stick. They’re not normally garnished, but go ahead and do so if you like.

The final entry into the build category are the layered shooters. This involves using the back of the bar spoon to slowly pour one liquor on top of the other so it floats. It takes practice to get it right. So if you plan on serving them, search the internet for some videos, buy the booze and practice layering until you can do it perfectly every time, even under pressure, with other people watching.

Stirring Cocktails

Cocktails using the stir method are stirred in the mixing glass using a bar spoon for 20–30 seconds. This both chills and dilutes the drink at the same time.

Some bartenders prefer to pour all ingredients into the mixing glass and add the ice last, to better control dilution. The traditional method however, is to scoop the ice in first, then pour the ingredients over the ice before stirring, to get the dilution started. Either method works, so it’s really a matter of personal preference.

How long you need to stir depends on a lot of variables. There’s the amount of ice in the mixing glass, size of the ice cubes, volume of liquid in the recipe, and size of the glass that you need to fill.

Ideally the serving glass needs to be filled within 1/4–1/3 inch (1/2 –1 cm) of the top. This makes for an excellent presentation. Any more and it’s likely to spill when picked up. Any less and it looks like you’re being cheap.

If the glassware is larger than anticipated, you may need to stir up to 60 seconds to fill the serving glass. The result will be a more diluted drink. You really only have two options in this case, either increase the proportions by using a larger jigger, or decrease the size of the serving glass.

Most professionals hold the mixing glass with the left hand and stir with the right, using a back hand motion. The thumb is down, palm to the side, with the hand towards the thread on the bar spoon. Now rotate the wrist clockwise to stir, reversing direction half way through the stirring time.

After stirring, put a Hawthorne strainer over the top of the mixing glass, pull back the spring with the pointer finger, then strain the cocktail into the serving glass. The garnish is added and the cocktail served.

After putting the cocktail up for service, or handing it to your guest, discard the used ice from the mixing glass into the dump sink. Rinse the mixing glass, strainer and jigger in warm water. Now you are ready to make the next cocktail, or go back to join the party.

The Swizzle Technique

A variation of stirring that’s worth noting is the swizzle. Place a small, long handled whisk between the palms of your hands and rub it back and forth, like trying to start a camp fire using two sticks. Combine that with an up and down motion and you have the swizzle.

Now, if you don’t live in the tropics and happen to have a swizzle tree in your yard to carve the tool, use a tiny chef’s whisk with a long stainless steel handle for the task. If all you have at hand is a bar spoon, it’s still possible to still swizzle. Just be careful with the stirring motion, so you don’t crack the mixing glass.

The Roll Technique

Another occasional technique is called rolling, which some bartenders use for tomato based drinks. It is half way between a stir and a shake. It gets a better mix than stirring, but doesn’t introduce a lot of bubbles, or foam, into the drink.

The technique uses both halves of the shaker. You pour the drink from the mixing glass into the shaker cap, then back into the mixing glass. Do this 4–5 times for a total of 8–10 rolls. This will mix the ingredients, while adding the necessary dilution and chilling to the drink.

Shaking Cocktails

As a general rule, drinks with citrus juice, eggs or cream are shaken, because it achieves a better mix than stirring. As you shake, the ice rapidly cools and dilutes the drink, while generating millions of little bubbles that create a foam.

How long should you shake? Just like the stir method, it depends on how much ice is in the shaker, size of the ice cubes, volume of liquid in the recipe, and size of the glass you need to fill. Usually 10 seconds, or 30 shakes is enough, otherwise the cocktail might become too diluted.

When shaking cocktails with eggs or cream in them, many professionals use a two step shake. The first 5 second ‘dry shake’ is just the ingredients with no ice. This helps to emulsify the egg and cream into the drink. Then the ice is added to the shaker, and cocktail shaken for an additional 10 seconds, to chill and dilute the drink.

Another way to dry shake is to swizzle using a stainless steel whisk with a long thin handle. After adding the ingredients into the shaker cap, take the whisk, placing it between the palms and swizzle back and forth. Continue until all ingredients are emulsified. Then add the ice and shake.

For all other shake recipes, fill the mixing glass with 3/4 full with ice. If using a standard size ice cubes in a 28 ounce Boston shaker, this will be about 10 cubes. If using a small cobbler, 7 cubes may be enough, but you may have to adjust your shaking time accordingly.

After putting ice into the mixing glass, add the recipe ingredients in order. It’s usually muddled ingredients first, followed by syrups, juices, any liqueurs and then the base spirits. Once all the ingredients are in, you are ready to shake.

Never shake soda water, or the shaker will explode into a terrible mess. If a shake recipe calls for soda, add it after shaking. Pour the soda water into the shaker cap to rinse the ice after the cocktail is made. Then strain the soda off the ice into the glass, topping off the finished drink in the serving glass.

If using a cobbler, snap on the lid and strainer cap. Put both thumbs on the cap, extending hands down the shaker with the little fingers towards the bottom. Raise the shaker up under your chin, or towards either shoulder if you prefer, and shake vigorously using a wrist and arm motion counting either 30 times or 10 seconds.

If using a Boston shaker, the easy method is to pour the contents of the mixing glass into a shaker cap. Take the mixing glass and insert it into the shaker cap and give it a swift tap to form a seal. Now hold the glass in the right hand, cap in the left and shake 30 times, or about 10 seconds, with an up and down motion near either shoulder.

The other way to use a Boston shaker, is to slide the shaker cap onto the mixing glass and give it a tap to form airlock. Now the trick is to turn the shaker assembly over with a back hand motion.

Put the palm of your left hand, thumb down, on the shaker cap. Put your right hand palm up, thumb towards the mixing glass. Now pick up the shaker assembly while flipping it 180 degrees. Tilt it under your chin, or shoulder if you prefer, with thumbs on glass and hands extending down the cap. Shake 30 times, or about 10 seconds, using a wrist and arm motion.

After shaking using either style shaker, put it down on the bar top, pouring trough, or counter top and separate the two shaker halves. If the mixing glass, or cobbler top are stuck, try giving it a whack with the heel of your palm where the two halves join. If that doesn’t work, try a swift twist.

If the whack and twist don’t work, try running the shaker under warm water. If all else fails, wet two bar mops with warm water and use them to hold the shaker while you twist it apart. Ideally though, you don’t want to look this silly in front of guests. With a little practice, the whack and a twist method is all you’ll need.

Now it’s time to get the cocktail into the serving glass. Check the recipe to see if it calls for a shake and pour, or a shake and strain. This is a very important step.

Pouring means straight from the shaker cap into the serving glass, including the ice that was used in the shaking. Straining means placing the Hawthorne strainer over the shaker cap and pouring the liquid out, while holding back the ice. If using a cobbler shaker, you can use the built in strainer, if you don’t have a Hawthorn one.

For pouring cream drinks, a Hawthorne strainer is recommended. They need to be poured fast from the shaker cap, so the ice doesn’t hold back the foam. A little side to side shaking is sometimes helpful.

After putting the cocktail up for service, or handing it to your guest, discard the used ice from the shaker cap into the dump sink. Immediately rinse the shaker cap, mixing glass, strainer and jigger in warm water, so they’ll be ready for the next use. If an egg drink was made, its better to wash the shaker cap, mixing glass and strainer using a brush and warm soapy water, then rinse, before using them again.

Blending Cocktails

The blender is used to make fresh fruit and slushy drinks. Some of the more popular ones are Margaritas and Daiquiris, featuring Banana, Peach and Strawberry. You can build the drink in the mixing glass before pouring it into the blender, or you can pour everything directly into the blender jug.

Most blended recipes call for crushed ice. You can make it by hammering ice cubes with a mallet in a Lewis Bag, before adding them to the blender. If you have a high powered blender like a Vitamix or a Blendtec, you can start with whole ice cubes.

Most home blenders don’t have the power, steel gears and hardened blades needed to crush ice. So always check your blender’s user manual beforehand, to see if there’s any specific speed settings or procedures for blending with whole ice cubes.

The total blend time varies by the recipe, but it’s usually between 30-60 seconds. Most call for 5-10 seconds on low, followed by 15-30 seconds on high. Others like the Vitamix use a variable switch, moving it from low to high, before hitting the turbo switch and letting it run for 45 seconds. Just eyeball it and blend until the desired consistency is achieved, be it slushy or sorbet.

If blending just a single drink, you may need to use the pressing tool, or tamper, that came with the blender, to press the ingredients into the blades. Always push through the access hole in the lid, because it will prevent the tamper from making contact with the blades.

Once the cocktail is blended to your satisfaction, pour it directly into the serving glass. Add the garnish and serve immediately.

Be sure to wash and rinse the blender after each use, according to the manufacturers instructions. If you don’t have time to wash it, be sure to at least rinse it out with warm water before using it again.


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