Not shaken, not stirred, these cocktails are thrown
By Robert Simonson
When James Bond famously ordered his martini “shaken and not stirred,” he was only telling two-thirds of the story. Because those aren’t the only bartending techniques available. There is also throwing, in which a drink repeatedly cascades through the air from one vessel to another.
Advocates for throwing contend that it aerates the drink, resulting in a delicately textured cocktail. At the very least, the process makes for a great show. Call it flair bartending, but with an actual purpose.
The technique is an old one. But by the late 20th century, it had nearly vanished, practiced primarily in old-school bars in Barcelona, Spain. In the past few years, however, it has made a triumphant return to many bars in the United States.
The drinks most commonly thrown are the martini and Bloody Mary. But, these days, almost anything goes. At Milady’s in SoHo, they throw versions of the appletini and the Long Island iced tea. At El Quijote, variations on the El Presidente and the Tuxedo get the treatment. At Nubeluz, José Andrés’ new rooftop bar in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in NoMad, they throw a riff on the Hanky Panky, while at Thyme Bar in Chelsea, a peanut-butter-flavored old-fashioned gets tossed about. (Some people may associate the practice with the 1988 Tom Cruise movie “Cocktail,” but the bartenders in the film threw bar hardware, not liquids.)
Seeing a bartender throw your cocktail can be a gratifying pleasure. But if you want a show with the price of your drink, you’d better choose carefully. Typically, only one or two cocktails on a menu will be made using the technique. There are reasons for this.
“If I want lots of water and lots of air, I shake,” said Miguel Lancha, the “cocktail innovator” at Andrés’ restaurant group. “If you want little water and no air, then we stir. If I want a hybrid, combining as much air from shaking, and as little water from stirred, I throw.”
Brian Evans, the bar director at El Quijote, thinks any drink with pineapple juice is “heavenly with throwing.” For Natasha Mesa — who practiced throwing at the bars she worked at in Portland, Oregon, and brought it to New York when she became beverage director of Milady’s — throwing is good for any drink containing wine or vermouth.
Most thrown drinks are cold. But Milady’s plans to begin throwing flaming hot toddies. That trick harkens back to the O.G. of all thrown cocktails, the Blue Blazer, a 19th-century whiskey drink that is lit on fire and tossed between tankards.
“I like to throw them on fire because it caramelizes all the sugar,” Mesa said. “It gives it more texture than a regular toddy.”
Over centuries, the technique has been applied to everything from tea to cider. In terms of mixology, the practice was particularly associated with the Havana bar El Floridita. One bartender there, Miguel Boadas, took the skill back to his native Spain, where in 1933 he opened a bar in Barcelona. If there is an epicenter of throwing culture, it is still Boadas Cocktails.
Throwing cocktails might have stayed in Barcelona had a bartender at Boadas not traveled to New York in 2006 to seek out cocktail historians Jared Brown and Anastatia Miller. Soon, they followed him to Barcelona, where they were taught the technique and were asked to help revive it.
“As far as we knew, no one outside Boadas and their local influence was throwing,” Brown wrote in an email. “We took it on the international bar-show circuit.” He estimated that he and Miller have taught thousands of bartenders to throw over the years.
While Mesa’s reasons for employing the technique are “10% for the show, 90% for the taste,” her customers might invert those numbers. “The customers love it,” she said. “The cocktail nerds, they get it. They are familiar with texture and what it does to the drink. But the average consumer just thinks it looks cool, and you get to show off a little bit.”