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Time for a Drink-Making Debate! Free-Pouring vs. Jiggering: The Experts Weigh In

Eben Freeman (left) and Gary Regan help us figure out which is better.
Eben Freeman (left) and Gary Regan help us figure out which is better. Photo: Abbe Benson, Patrick McMullan

Perhaps you are going to be tending bar in the coming weeks? Maybe getting your drink recipes ready for this contest? Maybe you just like thinking about the logistics of mixology. Whatever the reason, now seems like a good time to settle the debate: free-pouring vs. jiggering. What are they, and which is better? We posed that question to two experts in the field, and, more important, got the lowdown on how to nail each drink-measuring technique.

A Little History
Not long ago, bartenders looked upon the jigger, the hourglass-shaped piece of barware that’s used to accurately measure liquids, in much the same way that a cat looks upon a leash. There was something emasculated and hog-tied about a bartender who had to measure out exactly an ounce and a half of Beefeater for your $6 gin and tonic. But in the last decade, swept into vogue by cocktail revival establishments like Milk & Honey, Death & Co., and Pegu Club, the jigger has become a badge of honor, an essential accoutrement to the mixology movement, heralding an era of culinary precision and methodological gravitas. (Seriously!)

Modern mixologists now tend to consider free-pouring a relic of bartending’s Wild Wild West, the nineties, the days of juggling bottles and Redheaded Sluts.

But the underlying irony of the jigger’s ascent is that the founding fathers of the cocktail comeback — men like Gary Regan and Dale DeGroff, who instructed and sent forth the new generation of bewhiskered, tweedy barkeeps — remain ardent free-pourers, lending an Oedpial strain to the generational divide. To settle the debate, we called up decorated representatives of both schools — Gary Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, and Eben Freeman, of Ai Fiori and Osteria Morini — and asked them to break down their respective styles, just in time for you to perfect them before New Year’s. What say you, gents?

Gary Regan on Free-Pouring
“The first thing to do is get a liquor bottle, fill it with water, [put a speed pourer in it,] and then get a measuring device, such as a jigger or a measuring cup. Pour into the measuring device, up to the point that says two ounces, and within that time, count silently to four in your head. I like to teach people how to pour two ounces. And just do that, over and over and over again. Eventually, you know that when you’ve reached the number four, you’ve poured two ounces.

I suggest the number four because if you’ve poured to one, you’ve poured half an ounce, and so forth. This is different from pouring by eye, which is very, very imprecise. But if you learn how to free-pour using the method I just described to you, it’s so damn easy. It becomes instinctual. This past June, I took part in a challenge in France, where bartenders from all over the world were competing on speed and accuracy. I thought, Okay, I want to do that, because I wanted to know, did I still have it? With the exception of one drink out of six, I pretty much nailed it. The one drink I did not nail, I intentionally poured twice as much as was called for, because I looked at one of the bartenders, and I said, ‘That guy is a really good tipper.’”

Eben Freeman on Jiggering
“Pouring with a jigger is less about aesthetics and more about practicality — it’s the simplest argument to make to a bar manager because it’ll save you a significant amount of money. I was trained how to jigger by Stanislav Vadrna, in a more Japanese tradition.

Instead of holding the jigger by the thumb and pointer at the top, you stick the narrowest part between your index and pointer finger. You can use your pinkie as a guide. Hold it directly over the receptacle, to avoid spilling. It’s a little unintuitive at first, but it’s much more ergonomic, and with time you can get quite fast. Watch Kenta Goto at the Pegu Club do it. You’re really just rolling the wrist, as opposed to lifting and turning your whole arm, maintaining a small economy of motion. The hardest thing to teach people to do is to fill the jigger all the way to the top. Even a small amount over or under could be a difference of five milliliters, and depending on what you’re making, that could be a lot.

A lot of bartenders do use jiggers more for show — they fill up the jigger most of the way, empty it in, and then keep pouring from the bottle, thinking they’re adding what was missing from the jigger, which is basically free-pouring. It is a growing trend, but more than a trend, it’s the easiest argument to make for accuracy.”

The Verdict
We’re not sure if there’s a victor here — is one method actually superior to the other? Tell us in the comments!

Time for a Drink-Making Debate! Free-Pouring vs. Jiggering: The Experts Weigh In