18 Nov Throwing Cocktails: A Classic Technique Catches Up With Modern Times
Throwing cocktails—repeatedly pouring ingredients from one ice-filled tin held above the head to a catching vessel held down low—can provide an enticing, theatrical, and surprisingly rewarding alternative to stirring. The fountain-like “pouring ribbons” of strained liquid provide an attention-grabbing visual. But there’s more to the throw than the show.
A well-thrown drink closely balances chilling with dilution while enhancing aromatics and mouthfeel. By aerating the ingredients without over-agitating them, the mixture gains body, effervescence, and fragrance without clouding. And, bartenders across the globe are once again embracing the versatility of this age-old technique.
Oxidizing wine by pouring it in a long stream was practiced as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Eventually, throwing gained a hold in the Basque region of Spain where it was used to aerate both wine and cider. Pulling and pouring sherry directly from the wooden butts using a venencia—a very long stemmed cup—was yet another Spanish antecedent.
But, like many other elements of cocktail technique, the method was popularized by none other than Jerry Thomas—the Golden Age of Cocktails’ best-known American bartender. When Thomas lit high-proof whiskey on fire and fearlessly threw it back and forth, he created the drink known as the Blue Blazer. The antic gained some notoriety for its flair but proved more parlor trick than classic potent potable.
Spain to Cuba and Back Again
It was really when the traditional, non-pyrotechnic, style was brought to Cuba in the late 19th century by Catalans that the method earned a permanent stool at the cocktail bar alongside the shake and the stir.
These Spaniards introduced and preached a style of mixing they called escanciado at Havana’s legendary El Floridita (known as La Florida back then). El Floridita disciple Miguel Boadas—himself the son of Spanish immigrants—became a champion of the throw and expanded the technique. After leaving Cuba for Barcelona, he opened his eponymous Boadas near the Ramblas and quietly carried the throwing torch from 1933 until his death more than 30 years hence.
Cuba’s use of the throw all but disappeared in the 1950s and 60s, so Boadas (the bar) became the de facto home and keeper of the thrown cocktail. When Miguel passed in 1967, his daughter, Maria Dolores, heroically held the line for nearly 50 years until her recent death. But she made sure to train others in the traditional “Cuban style” as it came to be known in Barcelona. Today, the bar remains something of a Mecca for many bartenders around the world. And, they have even started throwing again back at El Floridita.
Throwing has become a very common technique in Barcelona’s more modern cocktail bars too. “We consider that we are the heirs of the Cuban throwing, so there are a lot of bartenders doing it more and more in their bars,” says Antonio Naranja, Bar Manager at Dr Stravinsky in Barcelona.
The pageantry of throwing a drink doesn’t hurt, either. “I think it is a very nice ritual that draws the attention of the client and gives the bartenders more tools for people to fall in love with our work.”
Many visitors to Boadas became missionaries for the technique. Adal Marquez, current head bartender at Boadas, cites a visit by London-based cocktail historian Jared Brown as a seminal moment. “He came a few years ago and he fell in love with the incredible Maria Dolores and her technique.” Brown has been a proponent of the throw ever since, even participating in a throwing seminar at Tales of the Cocktail back in 2014.
Other influential bartenders have followed suit and given throwing greater exposure both to the public and to younger professionals: Julio Cabrera, the Cuban-born cantinero—from his adopted community of Miami—organizes bartender pilgrimages to El Floridita and other cocktail bars in Havana where throwing is back in style; Naren Young features thrown Martinis at his bar, Dante, in New York City and recently ran a “pop-up” of his bar in Barcelona.
It’s Really a Toss Up
Shaken cocktails are generally not considered the best candidates for throwing because these drinks require more oxidation to bring out the acidity and flavor of citrus and enhance the mouthfeel and frothiness of dairy or eggs. But throwing is often a logical alternative to stirring cocktails, which—according to orthodoxy—should be practiced only when combining alcoholic ingredients like spirits, bitters, liqueurs, and wines. (If your recipe requires sugar and you want to throw the drink, use a simple syrup to blend more easily.)
The best throwing candidates contain aromatized or fortified wines like vermouth or sherry, or botanical-heavy spirits. “Gin loves to be thrown,” says Keli Rivers, US East Coast Brand Ambassador for the London-based gin distillery, Sipsmith, and former “Ginnoisseur” at the gin-centric Whitechapel in San Francisco. “There are so many layers in the botanical recipe that sometimes get hidden beneath modifiers and more aggressive flavors. Dilution will bring forward citrus and floral, but throwing lets those vegetal and base spice notes that can be overlooked come out to play.”
Throwing a drink you’d normally stir will not produce the same result. “This technique works for most stirred drinks or also some ‘built’ drinks [stirred in the same glass that they are served in],” says Simone Caporale, the recipient of the International Bartender of the year award in 2014 while at Artesian in London. If you want to try your hand at it, Caporale suggests that you start with a classic cocktail recipe “then you analyze the result. There is not a better or worse technique, there are only different results.”
Throwing Comes Full Circle
Marquez, says that the throwing technique we know today actually evolved significantly over time. Initially the cantineros (professionally trained bartenders) at El Floridita were only dry-throwing Pina Coladas after first shaking them with ice. The purpose was only “to make a smoother cocktail.” He says Miguel Boadas expanded the technique to include the now standard ice-filled mixing glass and an empty catching glass to make “the short ones,” stirred drinks like Martinis and Manhattans.
Some bartenders believe that the original technique of shaking and throwing the same drink has merits for integrating certain ingredients. “I throw cocktails that include egg whites,” says Chris Rolon, bartender at the Regent Cocktail Club on Miami Beach and co-owner of the cocktail consulting and events company, Tremendo Coctel.
“To get the best out of that egg white I pour all ingredients into a mixing glass then add ice and give a quick but strong shake. Then I open the tin, put a strainer over it and throw it twice to finish the dilution and start emulsifying the mixture,” he explains. “After throwing it twice, I strain out the ice and give the mixture a dry shake for about ten seconds. Then I double strain to get rid of big air bubbles while pouring it into the glass.”
And the inclusion of citrus doesn’t always preclude throwing a drink. Naranja throws “when I do not want to shake too much and add extra water in a mixture.” His Canp Nou, a drink popular at Dr Stravinsky, combines 2 parts London dry gin, and 1 part each of Manzanilla sherry, lime juice, and Green Syrup (a combination of coriander, basil, dill, and simple syrup).
While popular internationally, throwing has been slower to catch on in the US. Perhaps it just isn’t simpatico with the “high-volume” American bar, where it can’t be easily appreciated. “I always wondered why throwing hasn’t become a larger trend here stateside,” says Rivers. “However it does take a bit more effort and time to properly throw a cocktail and when you are three people deep on a Friday night; it isn’t always practical.”
But there are glimmers of hope for the throw. Rolon won cocktail competitions with a thrown drink he calls the Il Viaggiatore (the Traveler). The drink combines 1 oz each of Fernet Branca and Remy Martin 1738 Cognac, 0.75 oz of Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, 0.5 oz of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, 4 dashes of Bittermans Xocolatl Mole Bitters, and is garnished with an orange peel and a sprig of mint.
Rivers has created a take on the Blue Blazer that she calls the Get Down. This hot cocktail includes 1.5 oz of overproof gin (such as Sipsmith VJOP), 0.5 oz of blanc vermouth, and 0.25 oz each of Benedictine and Green Chartreuse. She lights the ingredients on fire and throws them five or six times before putting out the flame and adding 2 oz of hot water and 1 oz of orange juice. After pouring the contents into a rocks glass, she garnishes with an orange half moon “studded” with two cloves.
Cuban cocktail culture is influencing craft cocktail bars all over the world and many are incorporating the throw into their classic drink preparations. Today’s bartenders are getting exposed to this technique, learning about its historical significance, and figuring out how to use it. The traditionalists are thrilled. “In our house, Boadas Cocktails, throw is our signature, our heritage, our soul,” says Marquez. “It is a lifestyle and our hearts throw our blood in our veins!”
Brett Moskowitz writes about therapeutic cocktails of the medicinal and alcoholic varieties. He has contributed to Food & Wine, Liquor.com, Esquire, Saveur, Tasting Table, Thrillist, Punch and others. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @bmoskowitz and Instagram @bsmoskowitz.