A Companion for the Young Imbiber

(( Cocktail Techniques ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on January 13, 2008

Spoons1

 

The Exciting World of…Stirring!

That’s right, I’m back with some more technique discussion.  Dreadfully boring or informative?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Now, I’m of two minds when it comes to stirring.  One, the guy who sometimes just wants to chill the cocktail down and get on with the drinking already, tends to shake off the snobbery of proper technique, method, and specific utensils.  The other side (which wins more often) sticks pretty rigidly to guidelines, if only to make the customer’s experience more consistent.  What are these guidelines and why do they help in both chilling a cocktail and getting a desired texture?  To answer this, let’s chat about stirring in general.

Why do we sometimes stir and why do we sometimes shake?  Though there are many variations, and certainly no one way is correct, the rule-of-thumb goes something like this: If a cocktail is primarily spirituous (meaning with liquors, liqueurs, fortified wines, syrups, bitters, etc), it should be stirred.  Mixing these ingredients doesn’t require brute force from shaking, and the texture that results is silky and smooth, cold liquid sex on the tongue.  I’m not much for sexual metaphors, but a properly made Manhattan is a sensual thing.

Conversely, should your cocktail have juice, cream, fruit (solid or puréed), or egg, it should be shaken.  The introduction of air into the liquid, and the violent use of ice as a blender (of sorts), mixes these ingredients together while diluting and chilling.  Naturally, there are exceptions to these rules, but most cocktaillian bartenders walk the Party Line.

A lot of bartenders scoff at those who shake when they should stir.  Ok, I get it: I don’t want my Sazerac shaken.  But it’s not as simple as that.  There are also those who think the whole stir/shake debate is ridiculous: if you let a shaken Manhattan sit for a minute, the air bubbles will subside and it’ll be close to its stirred counterpart.  I’ll buy that, sort of.  I think, though, that from watching bartenders and cocktail-interested friends, the real answer more easily diagnosed; most people probably don’t have an efficient method of stirring.  It can be an awkward learning curve, figuring out a method for swirling the spoon inside a mixing glass with ice and not introducing any air into the cocktail.  Seriously.  It can take some time.

But then there’s the question of which method.  There are probably many more methods than the ones I’m listing here, but as a basic outline, I see stirring techniques in three camps: American stirring, European stirring, and Japanese stirring.   The name association is not necessarily geographic or nationalistic, and holds no sinister meanings.  It’s just an observation.

A note on spoons: I tend to use two different types of spoons.  One, the standard bar spoon with a twisted handle (though I prefer a disk on the end for herb bruising) works more as an ice crusher, breaking apart cold draft ice to create more surface and get the cocktail to a quicker chill.  The one I actually use to stir is a twist-less spoon.  Boy is it nice – smooth, quick, and sexy.

american.jpg

First, American stirring.  This is the way I see most American bartenders stirring.  It’s pretty basic, and seems to have evolved out of the use of the twisted bar spoon.  You know, that one you’ll find at almost any bar: a single piece of metal, twisted in the very middle.  Bartenders often bend the whole spoon in a long arc to make stirring quicker and more efficient.  As pictured, the spoon usually rests between the thumb and the index finger while the stirring is guided by the space between the ice and the inner surface of the glass.

japanese.jpg

Second, Japanese stirring.  I’ve now worked with a bar program that employs Japanese bartending techniques (the Hard Shake, for example), and have found that the Japanese method for stirring is by far the most useful.  I now use it every time I stir a cocktail because of its efficiency and noiseless stirring.  As pictured, the main difference is how the spoon rests on the hand, sitting between the ring and middle fingers.  Think of this method less as a wrist or arm motion (as can sometimes be the case in American stirring), and more of a push back and forth between the ring and middle fingers.  

As your fingers push the spoon’s stem back and forth, the spoon head will follow the inner surface of the mixing glass.  At the most basic level, you’re really just pushing these fingers back and forth, allowing the glass to guide the spoon head along.  While this is similar to the American style, your wrist never really moves and you can keep a solid pivot above your drink. Why does this matter?  The whole point of stirring is minimize air getting into a cocktail, preserving a certain liquid texture.  In stirring this way, you shouldn’t hear the clank of metal on ice or glass — just a smooth, quiet whirling.  (This description is still a little vague.  Maybe more pictures can be put up…soon.)


euro.jpg

And finally, European stirring.  Ok, this one is a bit of a farce.  I’ve just seen more Europeans using this technique (or lack there of) than I have anyone else.  It’s the cheater way.  Simply, you invert the spoon so the handle is in the mix, eliminating the drag from the spoon and make the whole bit of business that much easier.  I’ve even seen bartending books that tout this as the best method.

And with all this talk of stirring, it’s time for a drink.  The tools were already out on the counter, so why not make a tasty beverage?  I chose a Manhattan variation using Old Forrester bourbon, Punt e Mes, and a dash of chamomile tincture.

 the process

 
Yum. 

12 Responses to “(( Cocktail Techniques ))”

  1. Hmmm… Those pictures are really small! I’m interested in the Japanese technique, but have a hard time imagining it with the small pictures and description. Any chance of a video? Or even a series of pictures, like they have on chop stick wrappers?

  2. drinkscompanion said

    Yes, you’re right. I’ve made the pictures bigger and expanded the explanation a bit. It’s still not a thorough explanation, and for that I’m sorry. When I get some time this week, I’ll try and post some pictures to better describe what I mean.

    Funny you mention chop sticks — in Japan, when they’re training to use this technique, they’ll use chop sticks in an empty mixing glass to practice the back-and-forth movement between the ring finger and middle finger.

    Thanks for the reply!

  3. Interesting! Yes, the pictures are much better larger, thanks!

  4. donbert said

    Hey Alex is this your blog? If so have you tried double stirring with one hand? I saw Phil playing around with it and tried it myself last night. It’s challenging but totally do-able to stir two drinks with one hand using the Japanese type method.

  5. Ahem, I guess I’m finding the article on the informative side…

    So, not that I haven’t seen an amazing variety of mixing techniques among American bartenders, but now I’m wondering about what you’re calling the American technique.

    I do use my index and middle finger to manipulate the spoon, but personally have almost no wrist action at all. My hand moves very slightly side to side. Arm isn’t involved at all that I can tell, as it almost entirely finger manipulation of the spoon. The red tip stays nearly stationary, with the spoon moving in a circle beneath it. Pivot point, as you say.

    Chopsticks, indeed. Now that I think about it, using chopsticks regularly since I was very young probably does have something to do with the way I use the spoon to stir.

    Ah well, hopefully, you’ll be in New Orleans in July, and you can show me!

  6. Kohai said

    Enjoying the commentary on this site. Keep it up.

    Re: the Japanese stirring method–I can vouch for this one. In fact, for Japanese cocktail methodology in general; it’s fascinating stuff. I’m studying Japanese technique right now in Tokyo, and it’s insane. They are absolutely obsessive, and there’s a right way and a wrong way for everything. I’ve spent months just practicing stirring water in a pitcher and shaking rice in cobbler shakers.

    They’re not quite as creative as the American bars–the flipside to that “right way” and “wrong way” is that they don’t like to deviate from established recipes–but as far as technique goes, even your run-of-the-mill Japanese bartender is usually really impresive.

  7. dave said

    This is an extremely interesting article. Thanks! I am trying to practice this Japanese technique for home bar use. If you (or anyone) could expand on the mechanics I would great appreciate it.

  8. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Vitrifaction.

  9. Rick said

    Great post; I love the level of detail on stirring technique. I would wager lots of us use the Japanese technique and simply didn’t know it was called that. It is delicately quiet and chills the drink fairly quickly too.

  10. lachy k said

    u make some goood points and some bad points. european technique is a joke and i think an self respecting bartender knows it. american stir??? stil yet to s an american stir. if its not premixed on a postmix gun they generaly dont do it. in a tip based culture where u get a tip based on the fact that u giv sum1 a drink rather than earning ur tip for the quality of ur drink they dont worry bout a stir coz in the time u can stir one drink u can make 8 cosmos off the big asss “cocktail” post mix gun, basic economics good to hear the respect for the japanese though, if u have ever seen a trained professional japanese bartender make a cocktail u will understand the pant moistening subtlety they have. one approach u have missed is the fact that a “stired drink” dosnt nessecarily need to be stired. there is nothing wrong with making ur “stired drink” first, trowning in the ice, doing the rest of ur drinks in the meen time and alowing the ice to dilute and chill the drink without the need to stir it. most the time if u take this approach by the time u finish the rest of ur order, by the time u come back to the stired drink it is close to perfection, if not give it quick stir ad its perfection. do me a favour and try it next time ur under the pupm and u will realize the efficiency of this method.
    dig the site, first time i found it but will deff check it out in the future.
    and kids, remember,were all just a humble bartender doing wat good bartenders do best. its not all about the drink. ” a bartender is the aristocrat of the working class”, the ever consumate, all knowing host who can make customers feel at home in someone elses house. Luv my job and the people in the industry im employed in

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