How to Stir a Cocktail Correctly, According to a Bartender

Animation of a bar spoon stirring a cocktail and pouring into a rocks glass
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Stirred or shaken? Not many bars will ever actually ask you this question. Recipes are usually quite clear about this. But these two ways to mix a drink are still cornerstones of bartending.

Recently, we showed you a simple catch-all bartending formula to create a cocktail in the sour family of drinks—those that are shaken and include lemon or lime juice. Here, we’ll cover how to successfully stir a drink in the spirits-forward category like martinis, Manhattans and Negronis.

There are two main concepts you need to know as you stir a cocktail: the technique, and how long to do it.

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The proper technique to stir a cocktail

The basic equipment required to make a stirred cocktail is a mixing glass and a barspoon.

While there are plenty of fancy, specialized cocktail mixing glasses, some with pour spouts or made from heavy, decorative crystal, the trusty pint/Boston glass is standard at many bars. A julep strainer fits inside it perfectly, and they’re fairly affordable, so you don’t have to worry if you drop one on the floor.

A barspoon is a long-handled teaspoon, generally with the handle twisted into a spiral shape to allow it to spin easily in your hand. The opposite end of the spoon may be topped with a flat circle to press herbs or muddle, a trident to skewer garnish, or some counterweight to help create a smooth momentum while stirring.

In a mixing glass, add your ingredients and fill with ice. Place the spoon an inch or two into the ice, but not all the way to the bottom, or even touching the liquid. The less weight you have to push, the more seamless your stir.

Bartending stirring cocktail, spoon between middle and ring finger
The standard cocktail stir, with spoon loosely held between the middle and ring fingers / Getty

Make sure that the back of the spoon is in contact with the inside of the mixing glass. Move the spoon around the inner surface of the glass and rotate the ice into a smooth vortex. Never clink the ice or cause the spoon to lose contact with the side of the glass. Disturb the ice as a little as possible as you rotate it to prevent ice chips or to cause your drink to overdilute.

The classic bartender method is to hold the spoon’s handle near the top. Take a loose grip between the first and second knuckles of the middle and ring fingers. With a bit of practice, you can stir a drink quickly just simply by moving the two fingers back and forth, as the spiral handle allows the spoon to spin easily in your hand without ever requiring a firm grip.

However, experiment to find which technique works best for you. If you feel more comfortable and get a better spin with the spoon tucked into the crook between your thumb and index finger, no one’s going to judge you.

How long should I stir a drink?

There’s an old “gotcha” question often used to train new bartenders: What are the main ingredients in a martini?

Most new recruits will quickly reply gin and dry vermouth. Grizzled veterans will stare at them silently, possibly with arms folded. After a few beats of awkward silence, the seasoned bartender will tell them what they missed: water.

There’s a misconception that the ice used to chill a cocktail is there solely to make it colder. While it does lower the temperature of a drink and ensures its components are well incorporated, many forget that it adds an extra ingredient: the water that melts as the ice is stirred.

Such dilution reduces the heat and strong flavor of alcohol, which can bring out aromas and flavors that might otherwise be overpowered. It’s much the way whiskey connoisseurs may choose add a splash of water to Scotch to “open it up.”

When a bartender stirs your martini or Manhattan for what may seem like an excessively long time, chances are they’re doing it to reach a desired flavor, not temperature.

While exact times vary depending on the drink, you’re usually in good territory if you stir a drink for 30–45 seconds. That’s long enough for the drink to reach its ideal temperature where dilution mostly levels off. Some bars insist a perfect martini must be stirred 60–75 seconds, while others opt for less. However, 30 seconds is a good bet for a properly balanced drink.

Amount of water added to a cocktail based on stir time

We’ve tested how much water ends up in your drink depending on time stirred, based off a cocktail that uses a standard three ounces of alcohol at room temperature. Results may vary based on type of ice, mixing vessel used, and whether or not you have air conditioning running on a warm day.

15 seconds: 1 ounce water added

30 seconds: 1¼ ounces water

45 seconds: 1½ ounces water

60 seconds: 1¾ ounces water

The best way to find the optimal stir time is to taste your drink at various intervals and find what works best for you. Shorter stir times produce stronger-tasting drinks. If you prefer your martini or Manhattan possess more subtle aromas and flavors that emphasize the floral or fruity notes of the liquor, you may prefer a longer stir. The actual amount of alcohol never changes, just what you taste.

Published on May 15, 2020
Topics: Bartending Basics