Style vs. Substance a Weighing in on Pouring Shots

In the movie Anna Christie, screen sensation Greta Garbo plays a hooker who strolls into a waterfront saloon and says, “Gimme a visky, ginger ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby.” If you haven’t seen the film, it won’t ruin the ending by adding that the bartender pours her a seriously stiff drink—and then doesn’t charge her for it. I’m thinking, “Thanks pal, there goes our pour cost.” It’s a sentiment most bar operators can relate to.

Operating a bar requires maintaining a significant capital investment in liquor inventory, liquid assets that are especially vulnerable to internal theft and can siphoned off at an alarming rate. Regardless of whether bartenders over-pour liquor, give it away, sell it and pocket the cash, or drink it themselves, the negative impact is the same.

An essential means of safeguarding profitability is to implement portioning controls. Over- or under-pouring liquor wreaks havoc on a bar’s cost percentages. Because the sales price of a drink is hinged to a specified amount of alcohol, if that portion fluctuates, so does the drink’s profit margin. It’s challenging for a bar to remain in the black when the staff is playing fast and loose with the liquor.

The most widely used method of portioning spirits is free-pouring, a technique in which bartenders hand measure liquor without using a jigger, relying rather on an internal count or cadence to meter the rate of flow. With training a bartender can quickly become adept at pouring accurately.

This stylish technique extremely popular with bartenders. It’s also the fastest, most expedient method of pouring from a drink making perspective. The speed is derived from the bartender being able to portion the spirits with one hand, while simultaneously adding in the mixer with the other. Speed of service is why it’s frequently employed in high-volume beverage operations.

The technique does have its shortcomings though. Free-pouring accurate measurements over the course of a long night requires an inordinate amount of mental stamina. It’s especially difficult for bartenders to pour accurately when they’re tired, or working at a frenzied pace, which is when profitability and drink consistency really take a beating. But regardless of the circumstances, it is easier to dispense heavy shots when free-pouring than when using a shot glass, and it’s harder for supervisors to spot the overage.

Permitting bartenders to free-pour liquor can be an expensive proposition. On the other hand, many contend the opportunity cost of slowing their bartenders’ speed of service with shot glasses would be equally steep. The deciding factor is typically based on the operational demands of the concept.

Implementing a Measured Defense

The harsh reality is that bars are often nickled and dimed into submission, and it often happens with every flick of the wrist. The problem is that lax or nonexistent controls invariably lead to bartenders over-pouring or under-pouring the liquor portions in drinks. Each negatively impacts your guests, and both have serious consequences.

For example, adding an extra 1/4 ounce of spirits to a cocktail whose recipe calls for an ounce results in the drink’s cost percentage jumping 20 percent. After the fifth time it happens, you’ve essentially lost a drink’s worth of product, as well as the sales proceeds it would have generated. More problematic is that each drink now contains 20 percent more alcohol.

In today’s .08 society, most people are acutely aware of how much alcohol they can safely consume and therefore they set limits for themselves. Over-portioning alcohol in drinks places the public at risk and increases an operator’s legal liability. The steady rise in alcohol-related litigation necessitates that operators implement measures to reduce their exposure to liquor liability.

Under-pouring is an equally vexing problem for operators. Instead of using the specified 1 1/4 ounces of liquor in a drink, for instance, the bartender cuts short the pour at an ounce. After the fourth short-pour, the bartender will have created a surplus shot liquor to sell. Guess who pockets the proceeds? The bar’s pour cost remains unaffected and the theft will likely go undetected. The true victims of the scheme are your guests and the bar’s good name.

Controlling portioning through the use of jiggers or shot glasses is a sensible, cost-effective solution. One of the principal benefits is that it’s easier for all parties involved to see exactly how much liquor is being poured in a drink. Using jiggers decreases inadvertent over-pouring or under-pouring and greatly facilitates drink consistency.

While accurate, hand-measuring is the slowest method of pouring liquor; primarily because it requires both hands to pour a shot—one to hold the bottle and the other to hold the jigger. It takes training and practice to master the technique and attain the necessary wrist speed. Jiggers can also retain the residue of a previously poured product, potentially affecting the taste of subsequent drinks.

Finally, there are concepts where the use of a jigger might be considered inappropriate. One example would be a country & western bar where free-wielding, free-pouring bartenders more closely follow the concept.

No bar or restaurant operates under the burden of too much profit. Perhaps now more than ever, beverage operators can ill-afford the services of bartenders who play fast and loose with liquor. The solution is effective portion control.

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