The Art of the Unmeasured Cocktail

Sometimes, the beauty of an experimental or intuitively measured cocktail lies in its irretrievability. Nicholas Hall on living outside of ratios and formulas and in the moment of the "splash drink."

Quarter-ounce, half-ounce, ounce-and-a-half. These are a few of the standard jigger measurements—the numbers that define the limits of cocktails. Mathematically speaking, there are a definite number of possible variations using standard jiggers and a given set of ingredients. This number is, hypothetically, the threshold to cocktail creativity. The “splash drink,” then, is the possibility that lives in the margins, outside of the Venn diagram of “proper technique” with “proper measurements.”

Poured in rough ratios, these off-the-cuff cocktails spring from a knowledge base of proven formulas, but are not confined by them. I know, for example, that if I combine a base spirit with about half as much of a sour ingredient and half as much of a sweet modifier (2:1:1), I’m probably going to have a workable drink, even if my pour is not exact.

Think of it from the perspective of a cook. “Season to taste” is a common mantra in the kitchen. A good cook knows that a recipe is not an unbreakable law; it’s a guideline. And a good cook tastes at every step of the process, adjusting seasoning until the dish is balanced. A dish that requires a knob of butter the size of your thumb or a three-fingered pinch of salt on one day might require only half as much on the next. An unwritten rule of the kitchen is that “perfect” is a little bit different every time—which is why the mantra “season to taste” runs so deep.

Heugel—who uses jiggers in his own bars—points to the legendary Murray Stenson (the man who helped garner Seattle’s Zig Zag Café its lauded reputation), as a free-pourer of renowned accuracy. In fact, Stenson has made a point, and a career, out of not using jiggers. But his splash drink method is less a manifestation of geekery and more a practice of intuition built on a lifetime of experience; it speaks to a time before cocktail bartending became an industry.

Cocktails are a different kind of animal. Though specs differ from bar to bar, they’re almost always the law of the land. A Manhattan is not “some rye and about half as much vermouth, plus a couple dashes of bitters.” It is a standard formula (2:1, 2 dashes) and it is not to be played with. There’s a freedom in the knowledge of these standardized ratios. There’s also a freedom in the knowledge that there’s more to cocktails than a perfectly jiggered Negroni (1:1:1). Unfortunately, that freedom and its results are not without its perils—namely, the irretrievability of a splashed together recipe.

In the middle of grilling some steaks recently, I decided that my just-finished batch of nước mắm bitters (a homemade riff on Peychaud’s, kicked up with Vietnamese fish sauce) would be at home in a julep riff. I muddled mint with a bit of simple syrup, swirled in a few dashes of bitters and some Becherovka. I capped it all with crushed ice, and poured on the requisite bourbon. I flipped the steaks. I came back and took a sip. It needed something. An extra dash of bitters and a bit more Becherovka, and the drink was perfect. I slapped some mint, retrieved the steaks and drank.

Since then, I have—not once—been able to replicate the drink. I’ve jiggered and rejiggered, added an extra quarter-ounce of Becherovka here or a barspoon of simple syrup there, but the drink has never been quite right.

That drink’s perfect form fell between the cracks—or, as it was, between the jiggers.

“To execute cocktails in a consistent manner, jiggers are the most effective tool to do that,” offers Bobby Heugel of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. “But they also create limitations in terms of what you can accomplish when pouring a drink.”

The modern cocktail renaissance is a relatively new thing, and one that is, in many ways, built on educated guesses about older formulas. In an effort to standardize those guesses, a set of rules and “truths” have been agreed upon for the sake of speed and accuracy. But maybe, says Heugel, “our idea of unshakable truths is keeping us from actualizing our potential as bartenders, and, consequently, [the potential of] our cocktails.”

Heugel—who uses jiggers in his own bars—points to the legendary Murray Stenson (the man who helped garner Seattle’s Zig Zag Café its lauded reputation), as a free-pourer of renowned accuracy. In fact, Stenson has made a point, and a career, out of not using jiggers. But his splash drink method is less a manifestation of geekery and more a practice of intuition built on a lifetime of experience; it speaks to a time before cocktail bartending became an industry.

Despite all the very real benefits of precisely measured, systematic cocktails, this human approach has its own appeal. It’s not a Martini, it’s the Martini Murray made. Like having dinner prepared for you, personally, or ordering an omakase at a sushi counter, the value is in the experience of never having the same drink twice.

Though Stenson is no longer at Zig Zag, all of its drinks are still free-poured. “Every drink is tasted and tweaked as necessary,” says current bartender Erik Hakkinen. And though Hakkinen’s ability to measure a perfect quarter ounce by sight and feel trumps most, he’s no stranger to the notion of losing a drink to the whims of the splash. But perhaps that’s the point.

While jiggers allow for repetition and consistency, the nonchalance of the splash drink holds the potential for a eureka moment. You may not be building from step-by-step blueprints, but you’re gaining perspective on how things fit together—on your own terms.

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