There are many ways to prepare a drink, from stirring and “throwing” to flash-blending, and they all have their place behind the bar. But arguably the most common (and coolest-looking) is shaking. There’s something satisfying and almost therapeutic about the sight and sound of a cocktail getting shaken and poured into a glass. That said, there are different methods of the technique, and they all require a little expertise.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that there is no single, standardized way to shake a cocktail. Not every great baseball player has the same batting stance, and it’s the same story with bartenders and their unique, stylized shakes. Some techniques are easier on the arms and shoulders than others, but ultimately, being comfortable and yielding good results are what really matters.
There are a few rules that come in handy, but once one understands the fundamentals of what different shaking techniques achieve, they can decide for themselves which ones work better for their cocktails with a little R&D. To help break down the many methods — from the controversial reverse dry shake to the “regal shake” — we caught up with Harrison Snow, owner and beverage director of NYC’s Lullaby, who gave us his takes on how to get the most out of different shaking methods and when to employ them.
The most common type of shake is a wet shake, which is shaking with ice. When doing so, you’re trying to achieve three things: dilution, aeration, and emulsification.
These three pillars come together through kinetic energy. When performing a wet shake, you’re essentially creating friction between the ice and the cocktail. The swift movement of ice allows it to melt a bit (dilution), propels air throughout the cocktail (aeration), and blends the ingredients into a cohesive solution (emulsification). How hard to shake the tin and how long to shake for can vary depending on a number of factors, such as the nature of the cocktail ingredients, the ice used, and the thickness of the shaker tin. That said there are some basic guidelines on how to get the most out of your wet shake.
“Shake the cocktail as hard as possible — eight to 10 seconds is the standard, but that depends on the type of ice and the cocktail,” Snow suggests. The harder you shake, the faster you can check off the mighty three qualifications, and the less risk there is for over-dilution and a loss of aeration or emulsification. “There are two crucial windows in the shaking process: when you put the ice in the shaker tin, and when you stop shaking,” he continues. The very moment the shaking is complete, the cocktail is at its coldest and most aerated, so it’s best to get it in a glass quickly. And when choosing which direction to shake in, keep in mind that gravity isn’t in your favor when you shake straight up and down.
“In terms of basic physics, the ideal way to shake, in my opinion, is sideways in a horizontal fashion,” Snow says. Then, you’re not working more or less against gravity in either direction you shake. “Your push forward is just as effective as your push backward,” he says. When asked to describe the most efficient motion, Snow says it’s “kind of like if you were holding a knife and stabbing someone directly at chest level, or something.”
As morbid an analogy it is, it paints a pretty spot-on picture. A wet shake can be performed one- or two-handed, with a hand on each half of the tin. Two-handed is ideal (and easier) if making only one cocktail at a time.
Snow also suggests that bartenders elongate their shake. “If you do really short shakes, you’re not allowing momentum to build up,” he says. “You’re rapidly changing the direction of the ice so much that everything is just kind of staying in one place.” In general, a wet shake is called for when making any cocktail that employs fresh ingredients, like a Daiquiri, Margarita, or Mai Tai.
A dry shake entails shaking your ingredients without ice, and it’s almost always followed by a wet shake. This method is typically used to emulsify an egg white or egg white alternative, as such products take more time and arm work to break down, while also allowing the egg white to further aerate and foam up. If you’re looking to whip up a Whiskey Sour or a Clover Club, dry shaking is the way to go.
“Dry shaking is necessary for any time where the amount of aeration and emulsification you need or desire for the cocktail you’re making requires more time than you have in the tin with ice,” Snow says. The moment the ice touches the tin, dilution begins. But with a dry shake beforehand, you can shake to your heart’s content without worrying about dilution, though a solid 30 seconds should do the trick for most sours and egg-white cocktails. Some drinks, like the Ramos Gin Fizz, call for several minutes of dry shaking. When pulled off properly, this method will yield a creamy, towering layer of foam atop the cocktail.
Reverse Dry Shake
Just like it sounds, this is an inverted dry shake: Shake a cocktail with ice, strain it back into one-half of the tin, discard the ice, and finish with a dry shake. Since the first round of straining removes the ice, straining after the final dry shake is unnecessary.
“Some people believe that it gets a better aeration and better texture,” Snow explains. “When you add ice after a dry shake, you inevitably disrupt some of the aeration you just achieved. It’s gonna push out some of the air you just introduced.” With this method, that doesn’t happen. However, when performing a reverse dry shake, the cocktail is going to inevitably warm up after it’s just been chilled, so there are a lot of naysayers in the larger conversation of this technique. Plus, if a wet shake is done with enough vigor, you can achieve sufficient aeration with a traditional dry shake. Advocates of the method say it makes for a better Ramos or Whiskey Sour.
A lot of bartenders have different definitions as to what the whip shake is. Some believe it means putting one or two ice cubes in the tin and shaking vigorously until they’re completely gone. Others perform it as a one- to two-cube shake, but only for a few quick seconds. Then there’s another school of thought that claims a whip shake is shaking with a small amount of crushed ice, and “dirty dumping” (a.k.a. pouring without straining) the contents into the serving glass. Some even say it’s as simple as moving the shaker in a whipping motion as you shake.
Regardless of the specifics, the overall intent of a whip shake is to create more agitation in the shaker; the more room the ice has to “whip” around in the tin, the more aeration the drink will have. But like the reverse dry shake, the whip shake can have a few pitfalls. While you might achieve some nice aeration by shaking a cocktail until the ice is fully melted, it’s likely that the cocktail will have too much dilution. Even if you go with the route of using a single ice cube, the results might not be favorable.
“At Lullaby, we found that when shaking with one [standard] cube, there’s not enough ice for the transfer of kinetic energy from the liquid to the ice that you need to chill the cocktail down to where it needs to be,” Snow explains. “You’d be best off using one large cube from the freezer If your goal was to get as much air introduced into the cocktail while controlling your dilution as much as possible.” For those who don’t have large ice cubes, Snow asserts that a dry shake followed by a wet shake with three to four standard cubes allows for enough of a heat exchange that one doesn’t have to shake until the ice melts. It’ll still yield maximum aeration without sacrificing temperature. Fans of the whip shake tend to recommend it for cocktails with harder-to-mix ingredients, like a Piña Verde (coconut cream) or a Grasshopper (heavy cream, crème de cacao, and crème de menthe).
While it has arguably existed for many years, the regal shake was officially coined in 2010 by bartender Theo Lieberman while working at Milk & Honey in NYC. Admittedly, we’re not quite sure what makes this shake “regal,” but in simple terms, it’s a wet shake with a citrus peel added to the tin. Unlike relying on a garnish, with this method, you’re able to introduce citrus oils into the cocktail mid-make rather than just expressing them on top. Depending on your spirit, this can bring your cocktail to the next level.
“You don’t need that much [peel] in there,” Snow says. “You really only need like a quarter-inch piece of lime peel to make a difference.” He’s right: Due to the high concentration of oil in citrus peels, too much peel in a regal shake can impart astringency. We recommend familiarizing yourself with this method by tossing a bit of lime peel into your shaker before making a Daiquiri (known as a “Regal Daiquiri”), or try a smidge of grapefruit peel in a Gold Rush. In general, lemon peels don’t tend to work as well as those of lime, orange, or grapefruit, but experiment away and see what sticks.