Why You See Bartenders Shaking Drinks Over Their Shoulders

Anyone who has ever watched a seasoned bartender shake and shimmy their way through concocting a cocktail has to wonder — is it all for show, or is there a method behind their madness? Turns out, it's a little bit of both. While showmanship comes into play — without it, the 1988 Tom Cruise movie "Cocktail" wouldn't have had much of a hook — there's at least one good reason bartenders aim cocktail shakers over their shoulders. And it has nothing to do with making the drink.

Look closely the next time you're at a bar. If the bartender is doing it correctly, the shaker top should be pointed away from bar patrons. That's to protect guests from getting caught in a cocktail tsunami in the event that the cap comes loose — it's a safety thing. And that's only one of several functional reasons embedded in the shake.

Peter Suderman, author of Substack's Cocktails with Suderman, notes that cocktail shaking is part form and part function. The mixology expert claims there's a right way — and a wrong way — to properly execute the shake: "That means choosing the right tools and the right ice, and learning to execute the motion properly and consistently, so that every time you make a drink it tastes the same." But not everyone agrees that the shake is so straightforward.

The great shake debate

The shake is fraught with good-natured controversy. Showmanship aside, bartenders shake cocktails for a number of reasons — to chill, dilute, or blend ingredients. Shaking even changes the texture of the cocktail by incorporating the air that gives the beverage a frothy finish. (It's perfect for drinks like daiquiris, but a puzzling choice for James Bond's preferred martini.) In its simplest form, the purpose of shaking a cocktail comes down to creating a uniform chill that complements a blend of nuanced flavors.

Simple enough, but where's the controversy? It's a question of direction. Bartenders of the world debate the proper direction of the shake: Is it up and down, or side to side? In 2009, a trio of cocktail aficionados banded together to settle the debate once and for all, conducting a series of experiments to determine if direction matters. Dave Arnold, an award-winning food writer and a member of the panel, reported the results in a blog published by Cooking Issues. In a surprise twist, it turns out that regardless of shake style or direction, all drinks reach approximately the same degree of balance and dilution at about the 12-second mark. And while showmanship is fun, it doesn't affect the balance either.

So what about pointing the cap over one's shoulder? In terms of quality, it doesn't have any impact; it's just good advice. Even the best display of bartending showmanship is bound to flop if patrons end up wearing — rather than drinking — their elixir.