Beneath every drink measured, in nearly every bar that serves craft cocktails across America, a debate simmers. It’s not an argument of which many drinkers—even the savvy ones—are probably aware. And it’s a question so passionately debated, yet so prohibitively technical that even the chattiest bartenders rarely breathe a word outside of the nerdy clan. The question is: To jigger or to free pour?
“Shouldn’t we just call it ‘pouring’?” says Robert Krueger of Employees Only in Manhattan and Extra Fancy in Brooklyn, two self-proclaimed temples of free pouring, when I ask him his views on measuring drinks. Today, the term “free pour” refers to the style of pouring spirits or ingredients directly into a glass (mixing or otherwise), without a jigger to measure. And Krueger is not incorrect. Back when most bars didn’t stock a jigger, let alone refrigerate vermouth, siphoning spirits from bottle to glass was called, simply, “pouring.”
Thus the passion of the debate is, in part, derived from two ideologically diverging schools of thought—one old, one new.
“When I learned to bartend in the 1970s, the only places that used a jigger were the Irish bars—unless you were a regular,” says Dale DeGroff, a legend in the free pouring world. “Using a jigger was seen as stingy,” he says, referring to the double cone-ended tool now synonymous with cocktail bars around the world. (The original jigger was a sherry glass, which eventually evolved to be a version of the tool we know today, first patented in 1892.)
DeGroff was raised in restaurateur Joe Baum’s school of hospitality, meaning every detail of service was designed to feel like an extension of Baum’s living room. Certainly no one would measure a two-ounce pour of whiskey for a guest in his home. Likewise, DeGroff wouldn’t have dreamed of using a jigger in the Rainbow Room when he started in 1987, let alone a pour spout (pour spouts would not be found in a living room, after all). “I almost envied the guys who got to use pour spouts,” says DeGroff of the challenge.
Jiggering didn’t come into vogue until the early and mid-aughts when bartenders like Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey and Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club (whom DeGroff trained to free pour) began digging up obscure 19th-century recipes that required a measuring tool to standardize odd, old-fashioned ratios as compared to highballs and standard cocktail specs. Soon, jiggering became the stylistic standard at cocktail bars, the flashing silver implement viewed as an emblem of precision. And the best jiggering bartenders—Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy of Attaboy, Kenta Goto of Bar Goto, Erik Lorincz of the Savoy in London—are a satisfying whir of streamlined accuracy. Even to the layman, the jigger is a badge of legitimacy and expertise. After all, it’s the equipment by which we attempt to recreate the theatrics of cocktail lounges within our own homes.
But many bartenders still swear by the free pour, despite the obvious concerns (waste, inaccuracy, etc.). Of course, some drinks unequivocally call for a jigger—like, say, a strangely portioned, seven-ingredient tiki cocktail. But others, like highballs and standard-ratio drinks can be made more efficiently, the argument goes, via the free pour. Why not free up a hand, and learn to pour accurately the first time around? Further, many advocates of free pouring will tell you that if a bartender lacks the skill to free pour, he or she has omitted an integral piece of knowledge from the craft. As bartender and educator Tobin Ellis puts it, “Free pouring is the knife skills of bartending.”
The argument goes deeper, though. According to Ellis, jiggers can be inaccurate in their own terms. Because they are not standardized like rulers, one jigger’s two-ounce measurement will be different from another’s. Add in the element of human error: Who’s to say each bartender is filling a jigger to exactly the same level each time? Plus, each bartender’s point of vantage is different, so a meniscus to a six-foot man versus a five-foot-two woman may be quite different. By this logic, the jigger is seen as something of a safety blanket.
However, the question lingers: How do you pour a drink with exacting measurements, say, a Manhattan, without a vessel for measurement?
Back when DeGroff was teaching bartenders to free pour, it was about generally eyeing the liquid in the glass. With a few advances, today, that estimation is called the “Eyesight Line Method.” Sit down at Zig Zag Café in Seattle or Employees Only and Macao Trading Company in New York and watch the bartenders. While building a drink, each one will simultaneously hold the mixing glass up to eye level zeroing in on the level of liquid as each ingredient is added. (To avoid potential waste, most bartenders build ingredients in order of cost, cheapest ingredient first—e.g., simple syrup then citrus, liqueur and, finally, spirit.)
At Lorenzo’s in Brooklyn, James Beard Award-winning bartender Toby Maloney is teaching a new style that involves watching a light-up metronome behind the bar to help standardize a count. As bartenders build drinks, they are able to count pours with the help of the metronome’s steady flash, eliminating guesstimation. Another method, “Technical Free Pouring,” taught by Ellis in bartender seminars across the country, is, in part, a combination of understanding how ingredients act, how the body acts and how to master both by creating muscle memory via proper technique.
“I can’t tell you over the phone how to free pour,” says Ellis. “It’s a science, but you also have to practice. Bartending is a physical, athletic event.” You wouldn’t, for example, swing a golf club or a tennis racket the same way on a windy day, or swim the ocean the same way you’d swim in a pool. Likewise, you wouldn’t count the same pour for super-thick syrup as you would a silky gin. The only way to differentiate the counts for liquids of varying consistencies (even two different brands of gin will come out of the bottle at different speeds) is to develop a muscle memory for how each ingredient feels as it’s being poured. Not to mention, mastering all of this at high-volume speeds.
Maloney, who uses a method of accurately pouring from two different bottles in one hand, has been working to master the same move with his left hand, a feat called “cross pouring” that he witnessed at a bar in London. Ostensibly, the left hand pours a steady stream of the base spirit while the right hand pours citrus and sugar (which require different counts due to viscosity). This is all to say, free pouring is a challenging skill, and one that requires constant honing.
In a way, many of the bartenders who practice free pouring are making a performative choice. It’s equal parts improvisation and theater mixed with a dedication to a collection of skills from another era. A bit like watching a Barnum & Bailey aerialist whose craft has been honed and handed down over generations, it’s mesmerizing to watch a seasoned bartender work three bottles at a time, juggling between the rail and the glass. With a flick of a wrist, patterns are created out of seeming chaos. And with this stylistic choice comes a certain freedom, one that allows for a deeply personal connection to creativity. Rather than making a prescribed Daiquiri, the free pouring bartender is making his Daiquiri, one that must be felt rather than measured.