Short Pouring: Caught in the Act

I must be a lightning rod for malfeasance because all too frequently I spot bartenders ripping off the house. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye; other times they do it right in front of me. It’s enough to make me want to stay home.

For example, I recently was in Baltimore unwinding at a hotel bar when I saw the bartender pour Tanqueray into a top of a tumbler filled with what I presumed was tonic water. A few minutes later he did the same thing with a Stoli Tonic and Bacardi OJ. Predictably, the guests didn’t notice that the drinks were light. The disparity among bars’ drink-preparation methods leads most people to make allowances for taste differences.

Sure as rain, a few minutes later I watched the bartender serve another under-portioned Tanqueray Tonic, accept cash from the guest and moments later surreptitiously slip the money into his tip jar, safe in the knowledge that he had beaten the house.

What I observed was the classic short-pour scam. It’s an illicit practice often employed because it doesn’t impact the bar’s pour cost. The bartender short pours a few measures, thus creating a surplus of liquor. He or she then sells off the surplus and pockets the proceeds.

Why the top-pour? Spirits are lighter than mixers and juice and will float in high concentration near the top of the drink. Even if the guest gives the drink a cursory stir the first few sips will taste fine, perhaps even strong. The scam’s Achilles heel is when a supervisor — or observant guest — spots the bartender making a highball in reverse order. At that point, the only plausible explanation is that the bartender is stealing. But because the manager in this case was sipping coffee and doing paper work at a table in the back of the lounge, there was little chance of the theft being detected. That is, other than by me.

While I loathe bartender theft in all of its guises, short pouring is especially despicable. It victimizes the guest, potentially tarnishes the bar’s reputation and rips off the house — all this with a few flicks of the wrist.

You might be interested to learn what I did next. Perhaps it was my alcohol consumption, but I quickly grew quite peeved. Love me or hate me, I cleared my tab and slithered over to where the bar manager was sitting. By the way, I knew it was the manager because he was crunching numbers on a small laptop.

“I appreciate that you don’t know me from Adam,” I said, “but I want you to know that your bartender is stealing from the house. It really ticks me off, and I won’t be back. I just thought you should know.” And with that I pirouetted and left.

Now I admit to still having a few pangs of remorse over the incident. I wasn’t raised to be a snitch or rat fink. I worked the stick for more than 25 years. I’m also no caped crusader either. But I simply couldn’t help myself. The unimaginative fellow had it coming. Had the slacker manager been doing his job instead of paperwork, I wouldn’t have been placed in that position.

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