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.
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.
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.)
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.