To free pour or not to free pour: that is the question.
Every industry has its insider hot topics— the ones that are hotly contested amongst the industry’s veterans and new members alike.
In the world of bartenders and bar owners, one such topic is the free pour vs the controlled or “timed” pour. For the uninitiated, the free pour is one that is done by the experienced bartender who can accurately pour out the ¾, 1 oz, or 1.5 oz pour by counting or eyeballing the flow, and does not need to use a jigger or some other method of pour spout regulation. The controlled pour is done with a jigger, a ball-bearing-controlled pour spout that only allows a certain amount of liquor per pour, or an electronic device that regulates the amount of poured fluid. The electronic methods can even transmit information to the bar’s point of sale (POS) system.
There isn’t much hard data to support the conjecture that bar owners prefer things more regulated and bartenders prefer a free poor, but common sense certainly seem to indicate those preferences. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and both bartenders and bar owners should consider the pros and cons of the free pour before launching into too many debates.
The Free Pour Benefits
The free pour is what we all envision when we think of that expertly-yet-effortlessly poured cocktail at our favorite bar. This is the pour seen in every movie or TV show, the one seen in the infamous Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. The free pour is done with a bottle spout that ensures a steady and even flow when the bottle is tipped upside down, and typically, bartenders will count the pour to accurately measure out the needed amount for any particular cocktail. The free pour is one that requires practice so that no under or over-pouring happens, but it has some distinct and compelling advantages.
Professionalism is perhaps the strongest argument for the free pour. Bartenders look like they know what they are doing when they are free-pouring. A bartender is always on a stage, and any good bartender knows that all eyes are on them for the duration of their shaft. Looking like a pro isn’t just important for the bartender, it’s also crucial to the overall experience at any bar. This perception of professionalism leads into another vital optic for customer satisfaction. Customers who see their bartender carefully measuring their drink into a jigger or watch as an automatic device cuts off the flow of liquor into their cup may feel slighted. A customer who feels like they were given a good pour are more inclined to tip higher and come back to that bar, versus a guest who perceives that a bar is “cheap” or holds back on making a stiff drink.
Additionally, the free pour lends a sense of drama and flair that creates an aura of excitement at a bar; it is this drama and flair that helps differentiate the experience of drinking at bar from drinking at home. From a bartender’s perspective, the free pour allows service to flow smoothly. Drinks can be poured two at a time, there is no need to constantly clean and search for a jigger, and service is faster; more drinks equal more tips. Many bartenders also gripe about how regulated pouring devices are unreliable, inconsistent, and just slow down service. A good bartender knows how to control the free pour, keep service moving, and entertain guests, and an over-regulated environment makes that job more difficult.
Where Free Pouring Falls Flat
On the other hand, precisely regulated pouring can be a sharp tool in a bar owner’s toolbox. A free pour system does not allow for linkage to a POS system like a liquor dispensing system, meaning a bar owner or manager doesn’t have actionable data on what is being poured versus what is being sold.
The free pour can make inventory tracking harder as well, since the margin for human error is higher. A regulated pour helps ensure that the correct amount of liquor is poured every time, making it easier to track profit and loss, forecast product buys, and help keep cocktails consistent in their compositions. The consistency and predictability of regulators or liquor dispensing systems is jeopardized with a free pour. Free pours may also encourage some bad behavior from bartenders, though if this occurs at your establishment, you probably have more of a culture problem than a pouring problem.
Free pours also take time to master, which can cut down on the hiring pool. If you are just getting started and need to hire some beginner to intermediate staff, a free pour system might lead to over or under-pouring and can cut into already tight margins. A regulated pouring system lessens the learning curve and helps more amateur bartenders remain consistent with their mixing. While the free pour is often preferred by most bartenders worth their salt, it does come with drawbacks, especially for the person looking regularly at the numbers.
The Eternal Free Pour vs. Measured Debate
The back-and-forth between free pour versus timed pours or liquor dispensing systems isn’t likely to go away any time soon. As the world emerges from COVID, many bars and restaurants are going to be eager to please their thirsty and ravenous customers, but will also have to keep the closest eye on P&L after such an industry-wrecking year of closures and take-out-only mandates.
The free pour is undeniably the cooler, crowd-pleasing, and fast option, but it can also lead to greater inventory loss, less POS data, and less control over product. Ultimately, bar owners and bartenders need to have open dialogues about what works best, when it works best, and for whom it works best. The labor shortage is quite real in the U.S., meaning there will be more inexperienced bartenders behind the bar that truly need the timed pour or dispensing system, but for those seasoned bartenders eager to sling drinks again, it may only impede service and tighten customer’s purse strings when it comes to tips. The best solution is likely one that can be flexible and nuanced depending on who is behind the bar, and how well the numbers can be monitored.