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Martini mavens go totally stir-crazy

December 26, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

THE making of a martini raises so many alluring questions: Does shaking spoil the taste of the martini? Does stirring get the drink cold enough? Should the bartender put on an exciting show, or should he mix with masterly nonchalance? (There's a delicious word for that quality: sprezzatura.)

For a century or more, the shake-or-stir debate has raged among martini drinkers. But lately it seems that the current is running strongly in the stirring direction.

When the Culver City-area branch of Father's Office opens next year, don't bother asking for a shaken martini. "What's a shaker? We don't own a shaker," owner Sang Yoon says. "We don't even have a place to put one. We've designed the place that way."

In their cause, shakers do get to quote James Bond, who liked his martinis to be shaken "until ice-cold." Unfortunately, Bond is a dubious authority. In "Casino Royale," he asked for his martini to be served "in a deep Champagne goblet," instead of a martini glass, which makes him sound pretty much like a pretentious phony.

No offense, 007. I'm just saying.

Shaking has had its recent vogue. In the last several years, Tokyo has become a center for cutting-edge mixology. Tokyo bartenders have developed a unique style of mixing that involves shaking the cocktail very vigorously, back and forth as well as up and down. Many Americans have been impressed with the Japanese method. But some are coming around to stirring.

"When I was in Tokyo, I liked the way Japanese bartenders would shake martinis," confesses David Myers, owner of Sona in Hollywood and Comme Ca in West Hollywood, "but Sammy [consulting bartender Sam Ross] has converted me. He says stirring blends the alcohols better -- instead of a rapid shake, which emulsifies, there's just a delicate blending. You can see the alcohols come together."

The difference sounds a little obscure, and so does the conventional explanation that shaking "bruises the gin." It's hard to see how a liquid could be bruised, except emotionally. (Nobody seems to worry that vodka might get bruised. In any case, martini mavens insist that the vodka martini is an abomination -- another error Bond has to take responsibility for. Yoon isn't even going to stock vodka at the new Father's Office.)

Still, stir-ophiles clearly feel that shaking does some kind of harm to the drink. To some, it's that the liquor is diluted with ice water. Others may be thinking of the faintly cloudy look of a shaken martini. Perhaps they call it bruising because the cloudiness symbolizes whatever injury they find in the taste of the cocktail.

Why does shaking make a drink cloudy? Cocktail expert Gary Regan says in "The Joy of Mixology" that a shaken drink is colder, so some compounds in the vermouth may emerge from solution and form tiny droplets, a phenomenon known as chill haze. However, he says this would have been more noticeable in the 19th century martini, which was often equal parts gin and vermouth, than in modern martinis, which can be as much as 9:1 gin. For the record, Regan thinks there is nothing wrong with a cloudy martini except for its appearance.

Another theory is that shaking breaks off tiny bits of ice, and these contribute to the cloudiness. "When you shake," says Eddie Perez, bar manager at the Foundry on Melrose, "you create a lot of ice particles. It gives a colder impression because the ice chips are what touches your lips first."

David Wondrich, author of the cocktail history "Imbibe!", offers still another explanation: "Shaking introduces a plethora of tiny bubbles that disrupt the silken, thick texture that results from stirring." In effect, shaking aerates the martini and gives it a faint sting, like very fine carbonation. This sounds like the most likely explanation for the different impressions given by a shaken drink and a stirred drink (subtle though they may be), and possibly this is the "emulsification" that Sona and Comme Ca want to avoid.

Providence bartender Vincenzo Marianella agrees about the ice and the bubbles. "When you're shaking it," he says, "you change the texture of the spirits. Shaking adds not only ice and dissolved water but bubbles. Try putting 2 ounces of gin in two jars and shake one while you stir the other; you'll find they have different flavor and texture -- for a minute or two. After that they taste the same. But the first sip is the one you're going to remember for a long time."

Among bartenders it is a settled conclusion that shaking is the only way to mix cocktails containing ingredients that are hard to mix with liquor, such as eggs, dairy products and fruit juices. The question is whether shaking is wrong for other kinds of drinks, in particular the martini.

Shaking certainly has its points. Regan notes that it works twice as fast as stirring, 10 to 15 seconds versus 20 to 30. (If there were a Slow Drink Movement, though, that argument wouldn't cut any ice, as it were.)

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