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Jim Meehan’s Cocktail Primer: Terminology, Essential Equipment and Recommended Reading

Why are some drinks shaken and others stirred? What’s a cobbler shaker? Those cocktail questions and more answered by PDT mixologist and F&W contributing editor Jim Meehan.

Why are some drinks stirred and others shaken?

Stirred drinks are typically made of all spirituous ingredients, or all clear. The idea behind stirring is to preserve the clarity, to not add all those bubbles you get from shaking, and to maintain the viscosity of the drink and the mouthfeel.

Shaken drinks are typically made with ingredients that are already cloudy or murky like citrus and cream, so clarity is not an important part of the drink. When you shake a drink hard enough, it’s similar to making a cappuccino: You get the bubbles, you aerate, and that adds to the texture of the drink.

What are the basic spirits that every home bar should have?

Starting a bar is something that you should do piece by piece, starting with single recipes. Let’s say you think Negronis are cool. If you spend a lot of money on a bottle each of vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, Scotch and Cointreau, you might find you bought something you thought was a staple but that you aren’t using. You’ll feel gipped out of $40 because Jim Meehan said I needed this to have a bar. It’s better to start out with those three ingredients you need for the Negroni, and keep the vermouth in your fridge, and let the Campari and gin sit out. Spirits will keep for years. Later, when you want to make an Aviation, you can buy a bottle of maraschino liqueur and maybe some crème de violette. Then a year later, when you want to make a Last Word—all you need is a bottle of green Chartreuse.

What are the key bartending tools—including the Meehan Utility Bag?

The bag unfortunately I cannot with good faith recommend for everyone. For that price, you have to be quite interested in cocktails. You definitely need a shaker, whether it’s a Boston or Parisian or cobbler shaker. Then pick one drink, like the Negroni. You need a strainer, mixing glass, spoon, glassware, something to cut the garnish.

What are Boston, Parisian and cobbler cocktail shakers?

A lot of the guys in Europe use the Parisian shaker, which is an elegant two-piece shaker that includes a mixing tin and lid—so you need a strainer. If you go to Japan they use cobblers, a classic three-piece shaker with a strainer built in the lid and a cap. A lot of professional bartenders here use the Boston, which usually consists of a pint glass and metal tin, which you seal with your hand. Bartenders who slam down their tins and crack them together then start shaking like a madman, that’s a very American approach. I think the different tools have been developed for different styles of bartending. Some of them are more elegant than the others, in appearance or function. But whether they’re stainless steel or sterling silver, they all get the job done. Everyone shakes a little differently, stirs a little differently, strains a little differently. The exciting thing about making drinks is that there’s so much room for personal expression.

How do you know when you’ve shaken a drink enough?

I’ve done it for over 15 years, and I’m always thinking about what’s going on in my shaker and mixing glass. I’m also building a flavor memory of what a particular drink tastes like shaken for 8 seconds or 10 seconds, with block ice or with cubed ice, or what it tastes like stirred. I’m sort of constantly filing a bit of a lab notebook in my head. When I don’t know what’s going on, I’ve got a straw and am straw-tasting it to see what’s going on.

Can you explain how straw-tasting works?

You’ll see bartenders doing it at cocktail bars a lot. You poke a long straw into the shaker or mixing glass and you use like it pipette: You put the straw down at the bottom of the glass, close it with your thumb or index finger at the top, then pull the straw out. It pulls out less than a quarter of an ounce of the drink for you to taste.

How many kinds of ice do you use at PDT?

At PDT we use 1 3/4-inch cubes from a Kold-Draft machine; pebble ice or crushed ice from a Scotsman machine; 2-inch cubes cut by an ice sculptor; and spears that fit into a Collins glass, which are also cut by the ice sculptor.

When do you use blocks of ice versus crushed ice?

It all comes down to recipes. A cobbler or julep is made with crushed ice. There’s actually a crazy point in a mint julep served in a silver julep cup where—it has to do with thermodynamics—for a short period of time it’s totally stable from melting. In other recipes the dilution will help dry out sweet drinks, or help open up a high-proof spirit. Each person has an ideal ABV (Alcohol by Volume) where they can taste—for instance, after years of tasting very high-proof spirits, I can evaluate a product at 100 proof. But for someone who doesn’t drink spirits regularly, that’s way too high to appreciate what something tastes like. For a short period of time water does very interesting things to your drink. Over a long period of time it just waters it down and ruins it. Large cubes are meant to keep something cold, like Scotch or bourbon—and hopefully they’re pretty to look at. Ice in a shaker is meant to give you more control over dilution. Oftentimes shaking with large blocks of ice will give you much finer bubbles and much more of them.

How important is it to chill a glass before serving a cocktail in it?

For me, I like to take a cold mixing glass, a cold shaker, cold ice and a cold glass. Use room-temperature to cool ingredients to get the dilution you need: Take room-temperature spirits, cold vermouth or fortified wines or fresh fruit juices, then shake or stir to get the proper dilution before serving in a freezing-cold glass. Then you'll get the proper dilution and the proper chill.

Cocktail recipes are written with the understanding that when you shake or stir you are adding about an ounce or an ounce and a half of water to the drink. So if you take all the products out of the freezer, put them into a cold mixer, shake or stir them with freezing cold ice, and pour them into a freezing cold glass, you will not add any water and the drink will be incorrect.

The Japanese like to play with all the variables, freezing the spirits and working with different temperatures of ice or glassware.

Jim Meehan’s Top 5 Cocktail Books

  1. Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail
  2. Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology
  3. David Wondrich’s Imbibe
  4. Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails
  5. I’d also recommend The PDT Cocktail Book, but those are the books I would read first.

What about antiquarian cocktail recipe books?

The Savoy Cocktail Book is one of the most important cocktail books of the 20th century. It’s a watershed book in the sense that it’s a collection of all the great recipes of the early 20th century. But if you were to actually make drinks using those measurements, you would find they’re not balanced to our taste. Those books are important to be aware of, but if you were just getting into cocktails, I wouldn’t try to make those drinks.

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