While knife skills are Skills 101 to a chef, free pouring used to be the equivalent for bartenders. I remember being given a daily free pour test at a bar I used to work –if we failed, we had the misfortune of wearing a bright pink shirt with a jigger on a necklace around our necks for the night and had to use the jigger to make every drink we poured. It meant that we were not good enough at our jobs to do it right.

These days, though, it’s easier to use a measuring tool – just as it’s easier for a chef to use a food processor instead of slicing by hand. But just because it’s easier, that doesn’t mean it’s a skill that we should forget about. In fact, it’s one of the skills that defines us as bartenders – the master and manipulation of liquid. My first teacher in the bar and still good friend of mine, Colin Carmody, said that free pouring is the first skill you learn but one that you will master everyday over the length of your career.

Free pouring is all about feel. When liquid flows from a bottle through a speed pourer, air replaces the liquid within the bottle in the form of bubbles. When you are pouring, you can feel those bubbles flowing into the bottle through your hand. So, here’s my advice: using a measured shot glass, pour a full shot, paying special attention to the speed of the bubbles from your hand. Memorise the speed and feel and then replicate, using that as a standard. If the bubbles are flowing faster, it means your pourer is pouring faster. If the bubbles are flowing slower, it means it’s pouring slower so just adjust accordingly.

In my opinion, free pouring, when done by a “professional” bartender is more accurate, faster and more stylish that any bartender using a jigger. I believe that we, the bartenders, should embrace and master the art of free pouring behind the bar with accurate measurements, and total control of our stock.

Remember that even the most experienced bartender, a free pouring master, needs time to warm up. So, test yourself before every shift – spend 20 minutes pouring the perfect single. After all, everything comes from the perfect single. If you can pour one, you can pour any measurement. If it’s smaller than 25ml, cut your pour quicker. If it’s bigger, cut your pour longer. So, let’s bring back the art of free pouring! Let’s practice every day, and master the most basic skill of bartending.

Here’s just a few things to remember if you’re looking to improve your skills:

  • The counting method does not work
  • The fuller the bottle the faster the liquid will come out of the pour spout. This is because the weight of the liquid on itself pushes the liquid out.
  • Viscosity, the sugar content matters hugely because the more sugar, the thicker the liquid is which means that it will pour slower.
  • Speed pourers are not all the same – some pour faster, some pour slower, so memorise the pourers on each bottle behind the bar.

I love connecting with bartenders and people just wanting to learn more, so please get in touch if you have any questions or just want to have a chat. In the meantime, I’m going to go and pour myself the perfect Negroni. Free poured, of course.

  • Keegan Smith
    Keegan Smith

    Keegan Smith from Barsmith Cocktail Co specialises in flair bartending, bottled cocktails and mobile bar services. He has almost 20 years’ experience in bartending, is a multiple SA flair bartending champion and founder of Flair for Life foundation. Get in touch with him for bespoke, on-site bartender training in bartending ethics, mixology and practical working flair. Email Keegan on hello@barsmithcocktail.com or phone 076 674 6357.

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