A Stirring Holiday Affair
The Martini. The Old Fashioned. The Manhattan. Names steeped in cocktail lore, each a classic, stirred cocktail (despite a famous, suit-wearing movie spy who requests his martini shaken, not stirred). As the temperature dips and the holiday gatherings commence, I find myself reaching for a spirit-forward, stirred sip that livens the tastebuds and hastens the holiday cheer as you gather with friends and family.
There are so many ways to capture the essence of the holidays. One of my favorites this time of year is a combination of beautiful rye whiskey, walnut, and winter spices woven through. Such an exquisite and warming combination that is perfect after dinner or as an accompaniment to dessert. The key to this drink is nocino, a walnut liqueur, that is a bittersweet delight. I also have it on good authority there are native Southern California Black Walnuts hiding out in the hills behind Montecito. My mission for next year is to find them and make nocino.
So, back to the task at hand: Why do you stir a cocktail? As with shaking, you want to combine, chill, and dilute the cocktail. If you remember the rule of thumb I gave last time, anything with cloudy ingredients is shaken, which means that a cocktail with only clear ingredients is generally stirred. When you shake a cocktail, you are also aerating it, creating a lot of tiny air bubbles. Stirring a cocktail accomplishes these tasks without adding air to the drink. The result is ice cold, silky smooth, slightly viscous, and allows the sultry sip to shine as it slides across your tongue! These are often spirit-forward cocktails, with fewer ingredients, where balance is of utmost importance.
The main tools for stirring a cocktail are a mixing glass, a cocktail spoon, and a strainer. A cocktail mixing glass is generally a large cylinder with straight sides and a mouth for pouring and can be sized for one or more cocktails. I prefer a heavier base to make stirring the cocktail more stable. Typically, a julep strainer is used with the mixing glass, which looks like a big spoon with holes in it. This allows the cocktail to pour out smoothly while keeping the ice cubes and chips in place.
The steps for stirring a cocktail are simple, but may take a little practice until you get the hang of it. The object is to keep the spoon stirring smoothly and continuously for the duration of your stir. First, add all the ingredients to the mixing glass, then add the ice. As with a shake, use a lot of ice, fill up the mixing glass about two-thirds of the way. Add it carefully so that the cocktail ingredients don’t splash out. Next, insert the cocktail spoon down the side of the glass, with the bottom of the spoon touching the side of the mixing glass, sliding it down until it rests on the bottom of the mixing glass. One of the unique features of a cocktail spoon is that all along the shaft of the spoon, the metal twists in one big spiral. This spiral helps maintain the stirring action. Grasp the spiral shaft of the spoon between your thumb and index finger and between your middle and ring fingers. I find it easiest to place not at the tips of your fingers but a little further up while holding it in place with your thumb. Next is the stirring action.
The idea is to keep the bottom of the spoon touching the inside wall and bottom of the mixing glass and to get it to stir all the way around repeatedly without losing contact. To accomplish this the spoon can’t be grasped tightly but with a looser hold that will allow it to turn while keeping light pressure downwards and outwards so it can stir the contents without clanking the ice around.
The amount of time required for stirring is typically a little longer than shaking, as the contact with the ice is less vigorous. Usually, to get good chilling and dilution, I stir my cocktails for around 20 seconds or so.
As I mentioned briefly, balance in the ingredients is crucial for stirred cocktails because a little extra sweetener, higher proof alcohol, or too little dilution results in a cocktail with the balanced skewed one direction or another. It also may require a little practice if you are substituting brands or ingredients in a recipe. These little variations are what keep things interesting and allow for endless riffs on a single cocktail template, especially as you tweak them to your taste.
So, without further ado, let’s mix up a cocktail:
Walnut, Spice, and Everything Nice
1 3/4 oz Rye Whiskey (Michter’s)
1 1/4 oz Nocino (Haus Alplenz)
1 bar spoon Benedictine
3 – 4 drops Black Walnut bitters
Garnish: Cocktail Cherry
(use a high-quality one like Luxardo)
Add all the ingredients except the cherries to a mixing glass. Add ice to the mixing glass. Stir until chilled and diluted, about 20 seconds or more. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a cherry or two.