From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

From Behind the Bar: In Defense of the Free Pour

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He'll be stopping by each week to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman, with occasional recipes.

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[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

The jigger. It has become the ensign of the serious mixologist. A debate has developed around this conical measuring tool, and whether those of us who eschew its use can be considered "serious" as well.

The pro-jigger argument begins like this: Cocktails have precise recipes. Shifting ingredients even ⅛ of an ounce destroys the balance these recipes hope to achieve. Destroying the balance destroys the cocktail, thus there is no way to make a true cocktail unless a jigger is used to ensure precise measurement.

The counter-argument goes something like this: Jiggering destroys speed, flair, and creativity. Worse, it allows inexperienced puppies to skip vital training steps, calling themselves bartenders when they should still be washing glasses. There is so much more to bartending than making drinks, and the finer points of the craft cannot be learned from the pages of a recipe book.

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Derogatory terms are copious and colorful on both sides. I've heard reference to "free-pouring morons" and "the Jigger Brigade". One side is accused of making crappy drinks; the other of making crappy bars.

Now, I am a proud member of the free-pouring community. To paraphrase the great Gary Regan, "I'll hit the top of the glass every time." I recalibrate my pour on a weekly basis, and woe betide the puppy who sidles up to my bar and tells me I don't make "serious" cocktails because I don't measure. My response, its politeness issued in inverse proportion to the number of people at my bar, is usually "Just because you can't free pour doesn't mean no one can."

A well-trained bartender can free-pour as accurately as his jiggering counterpart. It is a difficult skill to learn, and there aren't a lot of people around who care to teach it. Which is a pity. I believe free-pouring exists at the point where craft and skill converge, and forces us to build more thoughtful cocktails.

For me, building a cocktail requires constant monitoring, and requires me to engage all of my senses. Even in the most trying circumstances ("In the weeds," as we say), I hear the flow of the spirit coming out of the pour spout, I watch it and adjust for discrepancies of air-gaps and stutter-starts. I feel the weight of the mixing glass in my hand. I constantly smell what's going on in the glass. I taste every cocktail I make, even those I've made a thousand times. It's not easy, because I can't shut off my brain, but the process allows me to put my personal imprimatur on every drink that I make.

I feel sorry for the bartender who doesn't have this opportunity. To me, insisting on jigger-pouring is an inherent statement that you don't trust him to make his own cocktails; he's there to make another person's recipes. If he likes his Manhattans with a bit more bitters, or his daiquiris a bit less sweet, too bad. In a world where the cocktail is the focus, and not the person making nor drinking it, we miss a lot of opportunities to grow.

The Jigger Brigade will tell you that their way is the only way to make a cocktail correctly, but the truth is that there are no absolutes. No one has the ultimate calibrating palate that says what is or is not balanced. No one can say what is universally good. To preach otherwise is to forget that what we do is meant to be consumed by humans, not analyzed by a chromatograph.

We Free-Pouring Morons will tell you that jiggering has no soul, and places orthodoxy over taste and experience. That's not entirely true either. I've known many an innovative bartender who prefers using jiggers. Their fantastically creative cocktails make their argument for them.

Ultimately, a well-made drink doesn't know how it was made. Jigger or free-pour, all of us stand on the shoulders of giants, deriving, revising, and sometimes improvising, until we come up with something that we think is worth putting in a glass. Regardless of how we get there, that well-made drink is the point.

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