September 1, 2010

Happy Hour: What’s a Barspoon?

by Payman Bahmani

What's a barspoon?

Here at Happy Hour the subject all day every day is cocktails. I provide the recipes, and hopefully you enjoy them, and learn a little something new in the process.  But a recent question from a friend prompted the realization that in all the posts about cocktails, I never really dedicated a post to cocktail technique.  Specifically the question posed to me was “how does one know when to shake a cocktail and when to stir it?”

After every recipe I mention whether the cocktail ought to be shaken or stirred, and I may have even mentioned in passing the reason for doing so.  James Bond prefers his Martinis shaken, so he must be correct right? Well, no. The fact that 007 had it wrong is reason enough to go back to the basics and set the record straight. I’ll cover the basics of the most common and most necessary bar tools and their purpose, as well as the perennial question, when does one shake and when does one stir?

Shaken or Stirred?

It’s ironic how many bartenders have no clue when it comes to this question, because it doesn’t get any simpler than this.  Basically, you stir a cocktail if it doesn’t contain any opaque ingredients like juice (think Manhattan, Martini, etc).  Bitters, vermouth, liqueurs, simple syrup, and of course the base spirit, be it gin, whiskey, rum, or whatever, all count, so if they’re in the cocktail exclusive of any juices and such, you stir.

The reason for this is because you don’t want to destroy the silky texture, rich mouthfeel, and heavy body of these ingredients by shaking them.  Make two Manhattans, one shaken, the other stirred, and you’ll see the difference.  The one shaken looks cloudy, and the one stirred looks silky, and has a luxuriously pleasant mouthfeel.  So yes, James Bond had it wrong.

On the other hand, if the cocktail has at least one opaque component in it (think Margarita, Daiquiri, Sidecar, etc), then you should shake.  So if you have juice, simple syrup, or muddled fruit of any kind, or any combination thereof, shake shake shake away!

Why? Because stirring drinks that contain juices does not sufficiently mix them.  The good, forceful shake (a) mixes the ingredients properly and (b) provides enough aeration and effervescence–exactly what you don’t want in stirred cocktails–to bring out the best of fruit juices and such.   Make two Margaritas, one shaken and the other stirred and you’ll see why you should be shaking a margarita.  The ingredients in a drink like the Margarita or Daiquiri are opaque to begin with, unlike the ingredients of Manhattans and Martinis, so the shaking of the former doesn’t destroy any clarity, but in fact provides the necessary uniformity that stirring will simply not produce.

Proper Stirring Technique

Proper stirring technique requires some practice, but in general you want to stir with a fluid motion that doesn’t clank the ice around.  The less you hear the ice the better, because again, you don’t want to get all that aeration. Since the ingredients are all alcoholic, they mix instantly.  Therefore your stirring is more to chill the cocktail than it is to mix it.  In time you’ll get the hang of doing it so that you have minimal arm movement, and the only movement will be a steady rotation of the wrist.

As for how long to stir, you have to judge that based on the quality of the ice. Poor quality ice means don’t stir for too long or else the drink will become too diluted, so maybe like 30 stirs or so tops.  If you have really good super cold cracked ice, then stir for 40, 50, or even 60 times.  You can see the dilution as you stir, so stop before the cubes have melted too much.  There’s no hard rule on this, just your own judgment from experience.

Essential Bar Tools

Bar tools

Above, from right to left: Julep strainer, Hawthorne strainer, barspoon, double strainer (aka tea strainer), and muddler.

Julep strainer: It’s curious why they call this a Julep strainer because you don’t ever use it to make a Julep. But, that’s what it’s called, and I’m sure there’s probably a reason why.  The Julep strainer is the type of strainer you’d use when making a stirred cocktail. It has holes big enough to strain out the cocktail, and since you’re not shaking, there’s no fear of ice chips, and it’s therefore sufficient for the job.

Hawthorne strainer: This is the most common type of strainer you’ll see, the one with the coil wrapped around the edge.  This is a finer strainer than the Julep, so this is what you’d use for shaken cocktails. The coil strains out any fruit pulp or seeds or shards of ice in a way the Julep never could. If you had to invest in only one type of strainer, I’d invest in the Hawthorne because it can do both jobs of straining stirred and shaken drinks.

Barspoon: This long, twisted, elongated spoon, is what you’d use for stirring cocktails.  Since it measures out approximately one teaspoon, bartenders also use it to measure ingredients in smaller scales, as well as to fetch out cocktail cherries and olives and such. A regular spoon that you eat with just won’t do the job right.  The key is the twisted part of the barspoon, which allows the adept bartender to rotate the spoon while stirring, which enables a more fluid motion that doesn’t clank the ice around.

Double strainer/tea strainer: As the name indicates, you use this to double strain shaken drinks.  This is not a necessity unless you like your shaken drinks sans pulp. I use it when I want a finer presentation, but otherwise it’s not a necessity for most people.

Muddler: If you like Mojitos, Caipirinhas, Mint Juleps, and any other drink that requires the crushing of fruit or bruising of herbs, this is what you require.  Notice I distinguished crushing fruit and bruising herbs.  If you’re trying to crush a fruit, go ahead and smash it with all your might, because all you’re trying to do is extract pulp and juice.

When it comes to fresh herbs, however, it’s usually better to go with a softer touch and merely bruise the herbs rather than crush them.  This is because many herbs, such as mint, carry their flavor and essence on the outside of the leaves, but contain bitter chlorophyll on the inside.  So when you crush the mint brutally you get the bitterness from the released chlorophyll when all you really want is the mint flavor.

There are hundreds of brands and varieties of muddlers on the market, some metal, some wood, and some plastic.  It doesn’t matter which type you buy, but what you want to look for is something that enables you to get a good grip.  I opt for the classic wooden ones because they get the job done just as well. However if you opt for a wooden muddler make sure you get one made of unvarnished wood. Any varnish on the wood will eventually be worn away by the acids in fruits you’re muddling and will wind up in your cocktail.

Lastly, the muddler also comes in handy for crushing ice. Simply wrap the ice blocks in a towel and pound away.

Jigga What?! Jigga Who?!

Jigga what?! Jigga who!

What’s a jigger you ask? Jiggers are what you see above. They come in a variety of measurements, and they’re used to do just that, measure–with precision.  Unless you have an excellent eye or years of practice as a bartender at a place like Employees Only where free-pouring is done with expertise, you should invest in a jigger. It may seem like something only for amateurs, but in fact most of the top cocktail bars in the country use jiggers.  Most bartenders at your average watering hole don’t use jiggers, but that’s because they’re lazy and untrained, not because they know how to properly free-pour.  Precision is an important aspect in consistency, and that’s why the top bartenders use them.

As for size, you can go all-pro and get various sizes like I have above, but if you have to invest in only one, I’d go either with the 1/2 oz-1 oz jigger (far left) or the 1 oz-2oz version (far right).

So now you know, and if you see 007 on the street please clue him in as well.  Cheers!

*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.

6 Comments

  • Posted September 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    The reason why James Bond orders his martinis “shaken, not stirred” is because he is on the job. Shaking dilutes the drink more than stirring.No one was stirring the for 30 seconds by the early 1960s. Bond has to appear as if he is boozing it up like everyone else in the casino, his shaken vodka martini keeps him honest. It is part of his cover, vodka instead of gin. Bond can’t be a British G-Man. Shaken instead of stirred, he is sober as a judge when he takes the microfilm out of your pocket and taking off with your girl.

    Regarding everything else – I couldn’t agree more!

    Regards, Fredo

  • Posted September 2, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Fredo, as usual you are a resource of all things pertaining to the Gentlemanly arts!

  • Posted September 3, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I’d love to comment on the Julep strainer if I may. Juleps are traditionally made with lots of shaved ice kinda like an alcoholic snow cone. I’ve always heard the julep strainer was to place over the top of the ice so you could tip the julep back and drink without getting a face full of shaved ice. I’ve tried this and it works quite well.

    Great article!

  • kayoko
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    I think I’ve mastered the stirring method! Took some practice but I think I got it– just gotta get the back of the spoon to always hit the side of the cup.

    Thanks for this informative post. Let’s do these “Ask Paystyle” posts more often!

  • Posted September 8, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Kayoko – Yeah a regular “questions” post sounds good, but how do you suggest we go about it? I don’t mind dedicating one Happy Hour post per month to something like that, though I don’t know how questions would be collected/submitted. If you got a bright idea let me know.

  • Kim
    Posted July 24, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I make a Martini with Pear Vodka, St.Germain and Pama Liqueur. I should be stirring this instead of shaking? Asking because of the color of the Pama.

4 Trackbacks

  • [...] we’re back in school for a moment, let’s examine the barspoon and its role in whether you should shake or stir a cocktail. |Happy Hour – [...]

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