Bartenders across the city might be pouring too much liquor in your drinks—so is it a problem or plus?By Kyra Kyles
As the hip-hop infused "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)," from Estelle played in the background, bartender Deborah Irvine made music with mixology.
Irvine, 24, grasped bottles of Ketel One and Grey Goose vodka, quickly pouring for customers at Streeterville's airy Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge.
Not once in the 30 minutes that RedEye observed did Irvine use a jigger—an hourglass-shaped liquor measuring device that she later showed RedEye, explaining that the tool was reserved for very complicated beverages.
Instead, the bartender measured how long she should pour by counting in her head, she said, moving her forearm up and down dramatically and rhythmically as she poured her potions.
"It gets to be second nature," Irvine explained of her pouring technique. "You know how much you're giving customers without necessarily having to measure it."
This method--called free pour--is common in Chicago, according to more than two dozen bartenders and managers from bars, lounges and entertainment venues across the city interviewed by RedEye. A common execution involves counting to three for a pour of approximately 1 1/2-ounces of spirits, the standard amount for a mixed cocktail, Chaise Lounge bartender Elizabeth Crotty said. "You get a feel for it," said Crotty, 23, who works at the Wicker Park lounge as a bartender and a party planner. "It's a timer in your head."
But some other local bartenders and bar managers who talked to RedEye—including the president of the Illinois chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild–oppose the free-pouring method, questioning its consistency and accuracy. Their arguments are bolstered by a recent study out of California that showed bar customers received, on average, more than 40 percent larger-than-standard servings of liquor in mixed cocktails.
Though there is no Illinois law regulating the amount of a pour, according to an official from the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, free-pour opponents recommend using the jigger for mixed drinks because it's accurate and can limit variability and possible over serving.
"It's like having a scale in your hand," said Betty's Blue Star bar manager Scott Chasen. At Betty's, all bartenders are required to use the jigger, which measures liquor in 1 1/2-ounce amounts. "Over-pouring hurts your inventory, and it can hurt your customer if they end up over-served."
But some free-pour fans call measuring devices—including the jigger and an automated system that hooks up to liquor bottles to ensure that exact amounts are poured—a blow to the drinking experience that leaves patrons feeling slighted.
Streeterville's Jeff Myers told RedEye he would rather go to a venue where the bartender measures mentally, as opposed to using a device.
"I like them to top it off a bit," Myers, 27, said of bar staffers, when asked by RedEye. "Give me a little splash more. I'd tip them a few more dollars to do it."
Myers' attitude is a common one among bar patrons, according to Drawing Room mixologist Charles Joly.
"The jigger does not do well in the Chicago market," said Joly, who also is executive general manager for Three-Headed Productions venues including Evil Olive.
The Gold Coast-based Drawing Room uses jiggers for specialty concoctions, the 32-year-old Joly said, but in the adjoining Le Passage bar staffers free-pour. "If you use jiggers with regular drinks, customers often feel you are being cheap or that you are monitoring what they're drinking."
Not true, said Bridget Albert, president of the Illinois chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.
Albert said the jigger is key to a new trend of high-end, fresh ingredient-heavy cocktails.
"It is expected that a professional bartender would use one," Albert said. "It is the only way to keep your cocktails consistent."
Measuring also keeps bars from going broke, Betty's Blue Star's Chasen said.
"Bartenders who use free pouring are over pouring," Chasen said. "It doesn't make sense. If you order a half-pound burger, that's what you should get. If you buy a pair of jeans at The Gap, you don't get one pair free unless there is a sale. Why should it be any different with alcohol?"