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Spirits: The last of the fabled free pourers

By Jason Wilson

So I apologize in advance for bringing this up, but a true cocktail nerd debate has been raging -- and I mean, raging! -- over at the Huffington Post since last week. It's a version of the age-old Free Pouring v. Jiggering Debate, most recently stoked by a HuffPo blogger named Karl Kozel ("One of America’s foremost bartenders"). Karl is a long-time barman who began working behind the stick way back in 1973. Karl is a professed Free Pourer ("Cuz I'm as free as a bird now" he quotes from Lynyrd Skynyrd). Suffice to say that Karl doesn't much the like the recent trend of bartenders in serious cocktail bars who use jiggers to measure their ingredients.

Asks Karl: "Who decided that hand jiggering cocktails was the best way to make a drink? Where did the art of bartending -- which included perfecting one's free pour become a nervous exacting science of 'measuring' each and every last drop of whatever goes into a drink. When did we emasculate the great skill set that was expected of any great barman?...if you are standing behind a bar and calling yourself a bartender, get rid of the jigger, and start relying on your abilities to make an honest and precise drink."

Apparently Karl has made the Free Pour argument before and been shouted down. Earlier in his piece, we can almost feel the chip on his shoulder: "It has tacitly become understood that serious bartenders use jiggers, and the rest free pour, which is pouring from the bottle through a speed pourer straight into the drink glass or the shaker or mixing glass, and measuring by counting silently to yourself until you've poured the requisite amount. Any argument to date against the idea of jiggering is usually followed by an ad hominem attack on the defender of free pouring and it is to this that I want to draw attention."

Now, I'm not exactly sure what an ad hominem attack is (I failed 7th grade Latin). But I wonder if suggesting the "emasculated" manhood of any bartender who uses a jigger doesn't come close? Anyway, I'm pretty sure I heard my grandfather make similar arguments defending cursive writing, playing football in leather helmets, and the supremecy of the abacus over the calculator.

As I have often suggested in my columns, I am not a fan of the Free Pour when it comes to most cocktails made by most bartenders. I am sure that, once upon a time, great Free Pourers roamed this earth, like the mastodon. Perhaps they were like the bartenders who trained Karl Kozel (he mentions Slim and George, with whom he worked at the Rib Room in the Charterhouse Hotel in Cleveland). From what I understand, Karl himself may be among the last of these Free Pourers. It must be a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, that Free Pour knowledge did not transition well through the late 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s -- which would have been the era of Karl and his contemporaries. I tend to call this epoch the "Tom Cruise Era of Bartending" -- coinciding with the rise of the Harvey Wallbanger and the frozen daiquiri and the Long Island Iced Tea and the Fuzzy Navel and bright-colored shots with names that can't printed in a "family newspaper". Bartending wisdom during this era was too often something like "a little bit of peach schnapps never hurts". To be fair, Karl and his generation had nowhere near the selection of fine (and obscure) spirits that bartenders today have access to.

Still, that era remains a Dark Ages of cocktail-making and the legacy of sloppy Free Pouring remains today. Nine out of ten bartenders cannot free pour to the accuracy necessary to make the classic cocktails that people are interested in right now. That is why good cocktail bars stress using a jigger to measure.

Now, yours truly was obviously incapable of not dipping his toe into this raging debate. So, here, I'd like to share with you my posted response to Karl Kozel on this Free Pour versus Jiggering hullabaloo:

If you can free-pour so precisely, great. But if we're gonna get rid of jiggers, let's get rid of pour spouts, too? Sound stupid? Well, then so does this ridiculous article.

It's not just about measuring. Most free pourers do so with a pour spout, meaning they're likely just pouring the same, cheap rail bottles all night long. I don't see many places that keep pour spouts in their best bottles on the back bar. It's great that you can eyeball a quarter-ounce of rotgut whiskey. Now can you pull a real bottle off the back bar and pour me the same without the spout? Consistently? 21st-century bartending has moved on from Bankers Club or Crystal Palace, and one hallmark of good cocktail bars is they have dozens of different kinds of spirits available. A bartender often has to measure without the aid of a pour spout. If he/she can free pour then, great. Most can't.

Additionally, some stuff, like Campari, vermouth, other fortified wines, etc. will spoil if you don't take care of them properly. But Karl's generation never worried about that, which is why, right around the 1980s, no one wanted a real martini with vermouth anymore. Too many bartenders of Karl's generation...were more concerned with being "beautiful to watch" rather than making a good drink. Which is why most the cocktails from that era have funny names, but taste like crap.

One more thing I'd like to witness: Karl and his ilk free-pouring real, fresh-squeezed citrus. This, of course, is a major component in good cocktail bars. Lemons and limes and grapefruits all produce different quantities of juice, as everyone knows. Do the free-pourers just squeeze them straight into drink? Well, I'd like to check the measurement on that! Or: Do they have a bar back squeezing citrus throughout the night for them, in order to keep things fresh? No, most likely, they're using Rose's lime juice, or maybe a can of grapefruit drink. Or if they do use "fresh", it's something likely squeezed earlier in the afternoon. So, enjoy that free-poured Sidecar at 11 pm!

Ok, now onto more important issues....

-- Jason Wilson

Wilson can be reached at www.jasonwilson.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. He will be signing copies of his new book, "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits," on Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the National Press Club's Book Fair and Authors' Night.

By Jason Wilson  | November 5, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags:  Jason Wilson, spirits  
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Comments

Mee-ow! Phhttthhht. Hiss. :-)

Seriously, I agree with your argument, Jason. Somehow that free-pour spout has become a symbol of masculinity. I guess it is sorta phallic, eh? Times change, priorities change. Nowadays, it's not about looking good doing the job, it's about making a consistent delicious drink. Jiggerers unite! I use a 2oz Oxo mini-measuring cup. Am I an Oxomoron?

Posted by: DrBeaker | November 8, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

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