-- William Shakespeare from Measure For Measure
They say, best men are moulded (sic) out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad
When you enter a restaurant or bar and you see the bartender using a jigger to measure their drinks, what do you think? Do you think: "Now that is a professional bartender who is taking the time to carefully craft the cocktail." Or, do you think: "That looks stingy / amateurish. My god they measure every drink here? Maybe I should order a beer or a glass of wine."
Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject because using a jigger has made a comeback and is seen more often than not in many cocktail houses in this country. Go to any establishment that is considered a serious cocktail bar and you will see the bartenders carefully measuring everything from the liquor to the juices and syrups that go into every drink. It has tacitly become understood that serious bartenders use jiggers, and the rest free pour, which is pouring from the bottle through a speed pourer straight into the drink glass or the shaker or mixing glass, and measuring by counting silently to yourself until you've poured the requisite amount. Any argument to date against the idea of jiggering is usually followed by an ad hominem attack on the defender of free pouring and it is to this that I want to draw attention.
In my past posts, I have made references to sloppy or careless bartending and bartenders. I have steadfastly held to the argument that we are getting better cocktails and are in a golden age of bartending. But these new establishments and the consultants that come out of them are holding onto a tenet that says that not using a jigger is just sloppy bartending. I understand how one can derive that measuring with a jigger is more precise, and perhaps more profitable for beverage operations. But, to suggest that making drinks using a jigger is the only way, and that it is more precise, is a completely false notion.
My first job in the restaurant business was working as a barback in 1973. I worked at a place called the Rib Room in the Charterhouse Hotel in Cleveland. The two bartenders there, Slim and George were consummate professionals who knew how to free pour and were proud of their skills. Slim once made me stop what I was doing and showed me how to make a drink properly, and was most proud of his ability to make the drink taste and look the same each time, and to leave absolutely nothing in the shaker. I was made to understand that this particular skill was what separated the best from the others. It was a show, and you were on stage, and it was expected that you knew how to do that. To Slim, using a jigger would have seemed amateurish and seeing it used would have provoked scorn.
Who decided that hand jiggering cocktails was the best way to make a drink? Where did the art of bartending -- which included perfecting one's free pour become a nervous exacting science of "measuring" each and every last drop of whatever goes into a drink. When did we emasculate the great skill set that was expected of any great barman? Measuring isn't wrong, just as using training wheels on a bike when you are first learning how to ride one isn't wrong. Both teach a form of balance, and both create types of muscle memory. To learn anything, it is oftentimes necessary to strip it down to its most basic forms in order to understand it. But as one moves on and becomes more expert, one must begin to intuit things more in order to really gain the essence of what it is to become fluent at free pouring.
I remember the grim era of the computerized bars where a monkey (oh I'm sorry, I meant bartender) simply coded a drink into the computer and it came out from a computerized bar gun into the glass. As fast as the idea came, it left just as quickly. People simply didn't want to have a drink that wasn't coming from the bartender's hand. Like any sane person, patrons didn't trust the "system" and it seemed stingy to have to resort to such a transaction. What were we delivering to them? Was this so complicated that like an anesthesiologist one had to carefully measure each and every drop? No, it was a way for lazy owners to have a system that tracked sales and inventory which sounded great save for the impersonal touch of having something come out of a gun.
I look at recipes as a guide or framework that has to be respected. I don't think that one should make any drink at an establishment differently than any other bartender. I do however, think that a good bartender should know how to pour a ½ oz, or an ounce or three oz's without the crutch of a jigger. This takes practice, and it takes time to learn. That is why I am a fan of using a mixing glass as opposed to making drinks in a shaker because I can see what I'm doing as well as count into the glass as I pour. I've worked in places where there might be two or three different pour spouts or where one of them just pours more slowly, so having the ability to see as well as count is essential when free pouring.
I also think of making drinks like a chef does when they are cooking something. Sure you must know the recipe, but you don't measure almost anything -- you simply add the ingredients as you go. Pastry chefs are different, they do measure, and for good reasons. Theirs is by necessity more exacting. Mixology by my definition is more closely linked with cooking than baking, and it just simply isn't practical to have to measure each and every drop. If one doesn't know how to free pour, get an empty bottle, fill it with water, and put a speed pourer on it and practice until you nail it. You simply don't need to rely on the jigger.
Besides, I can't tell you how many times I've seen these "jiggermen" over- or under-pour into their jigger, booze falling over the sides or not hitting the top of the jigger. It is a sham, and I'm calling it like it is: cow manure. How exact is bad jiggering?
To be exact isn't as important as knowing your proportions and how to measure them. Furthermore, if we are getting so exact, who decided that ½ of this or 1 oz of that is the general pour and not say 3/16th or 5/8 oz etc. I'll tell you why: because it becomes ridiculous to be so exact and therefore to make it simple, drink proportions are rounded off to the ¼ oz. Would that drink be better if it was made with a bit less or a bit more? It is entirely plausible to think so. Drinks to me are proportional creations that rely on an understanding of what you are putting in the glass, and how each ingredient will affect that combination of flavors that result in the overall taste.
Free pouring is a skill that is not only beautiful to watch, but a much quicker and more efficient way of making drinks in a professional setting. If you are not a professional bartender and make drinks at home, by all means use a jigger. But if you are standing behind a bar and calling yourself a bartender, get rid of the jigger, and start relying on your abilities to make an honest and precise drink. Unchain yourself and trust your hand.
--Lynyrd Skynyrd from Freebird
"Cuz I'm as free as a bird now"
I'll see you when I see you.