Bartender Basics: How to Pour Without Measuring

Animation of a four-count whiskey pour into a rocks glass
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

How much is in a pour of liquor? As a general rule, shots of liquor are 1 ½ ounces, while a “neat” pour (a spirit served solo in a tumbler) is slightly larger at two ounces.

This two-ounce pour also applies to most single-spirit drinks ordered “on the rocks” (with ice) or “up” (stirred with ice to chill and dilute, then strained). Though it seems bigger in the glass, the alcohol remains the same. It’s the ice and water that inflate the volume of the drink.

Pouring a shot is easy. The volume of the glass measures the liquor itself. For other types of glassware, however, you might need to rely on a jigger, or hourglass-shaped measuring cup, to portion specific amounts.

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Learning how to pour precise measurements without a jigger is a useful skill for home and professional bartenders. It allows you to serve drinks more quickly and cuts down cleanup.

Many bartenders have mastered the art of perfect pours based on the sight and feel of the bottle, as well as a few small tricks. For those who want to brush up on their home bartending technique, or just make sure they’re not over- or under-serving guests, here are three to know.

Illustration of two ounces of liquor being poured from a bottle with a speed pourer
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The Four-Count Pour

Also called “free pouring,” this technique is often used in high-traffic bars where speed is of the essence. Bottles are topped with a speed pourer, a slightly curved metal spout with a rubber stopper. These spouts regulate the amount of air allowed into the bottle, which creates a steady, consistent flow of alcohol.

A four-count is just what it sounds like. As you pour, count to four (yes, with “Mississippi”), and stop. Each “count” should equal about ½ ounce of alcohol. With a bit of practice, what ends up in your glass should fill the 2-ounce side of a jigger. A perfect standard pour.

Tips for your four-count:

  • Make sure the bottle is flipped almost completely upside-down to reach a steady flow. If you only tip the bottle sideways to 90 degrees, the pour rate will be slower, and you will short your guests.
  • Ensure your thumb doesn’t cover the air hole on the speed pourer when you measure. This slows the flow of the liquid. It’s also an old, well-known bartender trick to short-pour customers who may be over-imbibing, while allowing them to believe they’re getting the full amount of alcohol.
  • Pouring multiple drinks? “Bumping” the bottle, or a quick up-and-down motion while you pour, creates an air bubble that causes a short gap in the stream. This allows you to reposition over another glass and not spill on the counter or interrupt your pour. While completely unnecessary for most home bartenders, it still looks cool.
Illustration of finger being used to measure two ounces of alcohol
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Pouring a Finger

You may have heard someone say the phrase, “a finger of whiskey.” The idea is that a pour of liquor to the height of a finger held horizontally alongside the bottom of glass should roughly equal two ounces.

So, does the one of the oldest tricks in the bartending book actually hold up?

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As you can imagine, it depends, both on the size of the glass and the finger. In a completely unscientific sampling of three people with various sized hands, a finger-width of alcohol was poured into three different rocks glasses. Each pour came surprisingly close to two ounces, with only a range of variation around ¼ ounce between each finger and glass.

Note that if you use a Collins or highball glass, with its narrower diameter, a finger-and-a-half is more likely to get you closer to the mark.

Illustration of a tea candle next to rocks glass, showing the "lines" in the glass
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The Candle Technique

Take a candle, or small light, and place it next to a rocks or highball glass. In most, you’ll see a series of transparent horizontal “lines” in the glass that rise from the bottom, left from the glassmaking process. Fill to the first line (or sometimes second, if the first line seems like it’s almost touching the bottom) for a two-ounce pour.

We don’t know the science behind why this trick works (if you do, please email and fill us in), but in tests with every glass we could find, along with years of anecdotal experience in actual bars and restaurants, measurements almost always came out perfect. When we figure out the reason, we’ll let you know.

Disclaimer: While we are aware that in many places 1 ½ ounces is considered the “standard” pour of liquor rather than two ounces, our editorial stance is that these places are objectively wrong and just being cheap.

Published on June 12, 2020
Topics: Bartending Basics