Jigger (n): a measure used in mixing drinks that usually holds 1 to 2 ounces (30 to 60 milliliters)*
[Free]-Pour (v): to [freely] cause (something) to flow in a steady stream from or into a container or place*
Many would say that only nerds use jiggers. Many would say that those who don’t use jiggers are ill-advised and careless. Manual or automatic transmission? Loft apartment or four bedroom house? On the rocks or up? It’s situational. We, as human beings, are self-proclaimed masters of classification and efficiency. We assess the best methods to suit our goals and we chase them fervently. Wars have been fought over differences in ideology since the beginning of human history. Luckily, we’re not in the midst of anything quite so serious here in the bar business—but, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some issues to work out amongst ourselves. Jiggers or free-pour? That is the question. Or at least a question worth considering.
When properly used, jiggers are perfectly and scientifically consistent from drink-to-drink. They do take a bit longer to use appropriately than free-pouring, but the free-pour has issues with consistency. If you use a song to count your pours, such as—I don’t know—Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, your counts across a gaggle of drinks will be rather consistent, barring malfunctions in pour spouts or varying levels of liquid in the varying shapes of bottles. However, from the beginning to the end of a bar shift, the bartender’s heart rate will likely vary between resting and active BPM rates. I’ve personally recorded instances across 62bpm-115bpm in my own body on one shift (I had an Apple Watch for a few months—sue me). With a variance in heart rate over the course of many hours, with the addition of plaguing fatigue, stimulant use (coffee, cigarettes, etc.), alcohol use, or music and ambient noise levels, I’d say that this bartender’s perception of the world changes quite drastically throughout the course of even just one service. By this model, pours can be consistently shorter, consistently longer, or consistently inconsistent. None of these are ideal, and all of them are bad for someone, usually including the bartender.
The jigger never changes. No matter the time of day, mood of the customer, or function of the POS system, the jigger is always going to measure exactly the same at 4pm as it does at 4am. Unfortunately, it’s still up to the bartender to use this tool appropriately. Low lighting can affect accuracy, as can a shaky transfer from jigger to glass. A chronic case of over or under-filling the jigger can have the same negative repercussions. Even if you’re the best at free-pouring, you’re still human, and you’re going to be wrong sometimes. Jiggering eliminates this issue when used properly. But, even if you’re the fastest jigger in the eastern USofA, you’re still going to be slower than a free-pour. So which of these two will reign supreme: the animal instinct, or the scientific imperative?
Well, loft apartments are good for something entirely different than four bedroom homes, right? Neither is inherently better for everyone all the time. Skiing and snowboarding are a matter of preference as well, and while a manual transmission offers more control and fun, the automatic transmissions of modern times are more efficient and faster. I can’t say that any one choice is inherently better than another. We just have to find the best course of action to take within each situation we’re given. Our preferences change based on our situations in life, and our life situations change dozens if not hundreds of times per night during a bar shift.
Maybe, just maybe, this isn’ta “jigger or free-pour” situation in which we’ve found ourselves. Maybe it’s a “jigger and/or free-pour” world. What a delight that would be! When you find yourself making one whiskey sour for your one customer at the moment, or a few cocktails for your few customers, a jigger may not be a bad idea if you’ve already got yourself a solid bunch of measured/house recipes. The drinks will be exactly as intended, and the sacrifice in expediency will likely be worth it for both you and the customer. If you find yourself with two Negronis, a Boulevardier, a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, a vodka soda, and a gin and tonic for customers directly in front of you and the service tickets are piling up on a loud, dark, and busy Saturday night—possibly scrap the jigger. Those particular drinks aren’t the most sensitive, as even jiggering them while using varying brands of their prescribed ingredients will change their profiles immensely without changing the fact that they are, in fact, the drinks they’re meant to be.
I’m not saying that we should sacrifice quality, necessarily. But at the end of the day, our jobs are about making the largest number of people the happiest we possibly can. There are moments where sending out 15 drinks in 6min that are an 8-9/10 will yield a larger amount of utilitarian good than sending those same drinks out in 14min at a 10/10. How many return visits will you get and from which method? Staunch opposition of either jiggering or free-pouring seems unreasonable at this point. Every foot is different, and it requires a different shoe.
There are, of course, exceptions to this concept. There are some bars where jiggering just plain doesn’t make sense due to the bar layout and volume. I’ve never been behind this bar, but if you go to one you’ll understand. Conversely, there are bars where free-pouring would look silly and careless, and, dare I say, defeat the entire purpose of that particular bar. Every bar and bar customer is different, and they require individual assesment. If you work at a beer and/or wine bar, scrap this whole article! Sorry you read to the end-- but I guess that you may now have a different idea of how to arrive at the best possible course of action should you decide to delve into the cocktail world.
My method is to read the crowd, read the customer, and act accordingly. I don’t make free-pouring a habit, but I most certainly don’t have jiggers superglued to my fingers. Each method neatly in its place makes for the best possible outcome, where I work.
What works where you work?