How to throw a cocktail
Words by Simon Difford & Karen Fick & demonstration by Stuart Hudson of Forgotten Hospitality
Photography by our videographer Alicja Rymarowicz
As the name suggests this method of mixing a cocktail is achieved by pouring the ingredients from one vessel to another, ideally pouring from one vessel held aloft to the other vessel held as low as possible below.
When to throw
Any drink can be thrown but this method is particularly effective when making drinks with wine based ingredients such as vermouth and sherry as it enhances aeration and releases aromatics. The aim is to create tiny air bubbles which give a textural element in a way that stirring and shaking can't. Stirring should not produce bubbles and shaking creates larger bubbles. To experience the benefits of throwing a drink compare stirred and thrown versions of Manhattan and Bamboo cocktails.
How to throw
As Stuart Hudson says, "Throwing is incredibly easy - if you can catch a ball you'll be able to throw. It's physically gentle, balletic and elegant, and while shaking causes injuries and is tough on the body, throwing can be kept up as a lifelong skill."
1. Select your two vessels. Shaker tins are easier to use than mixing glasses due to the steel rim producing a cleaner pour. Ideally use two large base shakers rather than a small tin from a shaker set. In Barcelona bartenders predominantly use specially made throwing glasses that have a very precise lip but these are still harder to use than a pair of tins.
2. Assemble your ingredients in one of the vessels with ice. This will be the 'top vessel'. Don't use too much ice or you won't be able to control the top container but you need to fill 2/3rds with ice as the drink will be in contact with it for only half the time.
3. Choose a julep or hawthorn strainer that will nestle inside the top vessel at an angle of about 45° so allowing liquid to be poured back into the vessel over the strainer.
4. Hold the top vessel high above your head in your right-hand.
5. Using your left hand, hold the second 'catching vessel' near the brim between your thumb and middle finger so the vessel can pivot between your fingers. This will allow you to take the catching vessel down almost as far as your knees.
6. Raise the 'catching vessel' up to meet the top vessel and pour from the top vessel into the catching vessel. Throwing is all about letting the liquid fall from high to low, after all, liquid obeys the laws of gravity. Don't start the throw with the vessels at mid-height and try and raise one and lower the other. Start with both cups at the top and let the catching hand drop down. If you try and do it any other way you will spill the liquid.
7. Start pouring slowly and control the speed at which the liquid falls. If you bring your hand down too quickly you will end up chasing the liquid around. Be sure to watch the catching vessel as you lower it. Don't look at the top vessel. Concentrate on the one you're lowering.
8. Holding the catching vessel at a slight angle so the falling liquid hits the inside edge of the tin will help prevent splashing.
9. Increase the distance between the two vessels as you pour while keeping the top vessel aloft and continue watching the catching vessel as it is lowered. You should be at your maximum reach with about a third of the liquid left in the top vessel. This allows the last of the liquid to aerate the drink with the maximum fall. As you get to the last of the liquid it starts to break into droplets. When you see this happening, straighten your catching vessel so the last droplets fall directly into the drink rather than hitting the edge of the vessel. This pulls oxygen down into the drink and opens it.
10. Then pour the partially mixed cocktail back into the first ice-filled container and repeat the process. Four to five throws create the best result. Watch the liquid and you will be able to see the fine bubbles as you pour and you'll get a feel for when it's ready. If you are using large cubes of colder ice you may need six or seven throws in order to achieve the 30 to 35% dilution you are looking for.
A martial art
The first known reference to throwing is made during the Song dynasty of 10th to 13th century China. It suggests that the origins of Chinese long pot tea throw lie in the throwing of Chinese rice wine. Long pot tea throwing has been practised for nearly 1,000 years and with its amazing twirls and spins and tea shooting out of the pot, has the appearance of a martial art.
The throw then seems to move along the Spice Road, which is also the path of distillation, with the tea drink that originated in China changing with the addition of condensed milk into a viscous tea known as Teh Tarik (which literally translates as pulled tea) that will throw over about a metre and half before it breaks up into droplets. This tea was traditionally made by Indians as chai and was taken by them to Malaysia and Singapore where it evolved into a less spicy drink. The art of Teh Tarik is very competitive and is still performed for visiting dignitaries.
The Moors carried throwing to Morocco where mint and wormwood tea is poured into tiny glasses to bring out the taste and aroma of the mint.
In the 17th Century a reference is found to the throwing of alcohol in Spain and to this day in the Basque region Spanish cider throwers drop cider from a height (or from barrel taps) to aerate it on its way from the bottle onto the side of a small tilted glass. The still cider becomes carbonated with fine bubbles that dissipate over about five minutes so it's only served in small quantities. This process of creating a full mouth-feel and enlivening the aromas and texture to the cider is called the awakening of the cider.
Again in Spain, aeration is one of the aims of the venenciador whose task is to draw and serve sherry from the cask without taking any or the floating flor yeast layer using a tool called a venencia. The process evolved about 170 years ago as a way of tasting the sherry while it was being made - samples are taken through a bung in the cask - and as part of the sales process.
The venecia is about a metre long with a cup (cubilete) at one end and a hook (gancho) at the other. It needs to be flexible so that it can reach vertically into the cask. Once made of whale bone they are now usually made of plastic, fibreglass or steel. Once removed from the cask the venecia is turned to horizontal and the sherry pours from a height into the glass. Bearing in mind that the venecia is flexible and will begin to change shape as the weight of the sherry leaves the cup it's not hard to imagine what a fine art the process is as the venenciador creates a rhythm to the fall of the liquid.
In the Museum of Art History in Vienna there is a sample of Greek pottery which depicts a youth wielding an instrument bearing a resemblance to a modern-day venencia. According to historians this vessel, used for mixing and serving wine and water dating from 490 BC, shows a wine-pourer serving wine to Achilles, holding a sieve in his left hand (to eliminate impurities from the wine) and some sort of venencia in his right.
The cocktail era
Some of the earliest references to mixed drinks from the 16th century are to possets (a hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale) which required the liquids to be thrown together in a manner that would best incorporate the ingredients and give the drink the right textural feel.
The first written reference to a cocktail being thrown is found in 1840 where a gin cocktail is described as being thrown from one tumbler to another. An 1849 picture of the Eldorado Gambling House in San Francisco, where Jerry Thomas created the Blue Blazer, depicts a character throwing a drink. Jerry Thomas is said to have poured the blazing whisky used in the Blue Blazer a distance of one metre from one tankard to the next. San Francisco in 1849 was still very Spanish and one can imagine that Jerry Thomas had witnessed the Spaniards in action pouring drinks.
Throwing, as lamented by one Kansas City bartender in 1883, then seems to have disappeared in America: "There used to be a dozen men in Kansas City who thought nothing of doing that [making a Blue Blazer] but now you never see it. Why, one bartender on Main Street tried it the other day for fun and nearly burnt his hands off".
We now move to El Floridita, Cuba in 1898 where Emilio Gonzälez taught his staff to mix drinks in the Catalan way, the way he'd been taught in his home country of Spain, which was to throw from one glass at height to another lower one. Mixing was done in this way at El Floridita and some other Cuban bars for about thirty years. The last drink was thrown at Floridita in 1962.
The technique was carried back to Spain by a bartender named Miguel Boadas who had trained at Floridita. He opened a cocktail bar in Barcelona (named Boadas) in 1933 and this became the only place in the world for nearly 50 years where drinks were thrown. By 2005, there were just ten bartenders in the world, all based in Barcelona, who were throwing drinks.
In 2012, a Boadas bartender travelled to Floridita to reintroduce the art and soon the technique started to reappear in bars and was used in competitions as a show piece. If you take the view that the Blue Blazer as the birthplace of flare then you could say that throwing is the original flare.