Opinion: It’s about time we stopped spending our weekly units on tasting cocktails

Michael Butt

10 September 2015

Regular readers of this column will know that I am a professed fan of mathematics. Numbers have a purity that would be the envy of every distiller, and can be combined in ways that humble mixology.

Although a hybrid between art and science, our profession has reached a level of maturity where qualitative analysis needs to be substituted with quantitative, from accurate GPs to the weight of sugar in simple syrup. This approach may make me sound drier than Churchill’s Martini but can lead to surprising discoveries.

Stuart Hudson, one of the most intellectually curious, talented (and currently the fastest) bartenders out there said he prefers free pouring to the use of measures. He correctly stated that spirit measures are slower. When faced with a baying horde, or even a small queue, bartenders almost universally use jiggers badly, actually decreasing their accuracy in a quest for more speed. I agree. My problem comes with the last action of unmeasured drink manufacture – tasting.

Dip a straw in the shaker. Taste. Adjust. Taste again. Serve. Math says the volume of a 4cm dip of an 8mm straw is 1.59ml. Repeated experiments using a laboratory balance and an admitted approximation of density say 1.34ml.

Given that the average straight-up cocktail has a volume of 110ml and contains two units of alcohol, a bartender who makes perfect drinks without adjustment or second taste consumes a unit of alcohol every 41 drinks.

The number of cocktails made by a bartender on any one shift obviously varies on the type of establishment, the day of the week and their speed, but a shift average of 200 is probably about right.

This equates to very nearly five units of alcohol consumed before we even start to mention Jäger laybacks.

The Government’s advice on alcohol intake recommends a weekly maximum of 14 units for women and 21 units for men – which we are wasting on tasting. Like many pieces of government advice this is useless; too little if split into daily consumption, too much to change attitudes towards binge-drinking, and therefore ignored by all.

My problem comes with the last action of unmeasured drink manufacture – tasting

But the impact of over-consumption on health is a real problem, so how do we solve it? We can try and taste smaller amounts, by using a sip straw or a tiny spoon, but it’s difficult to get a full palate perspective from a smaller amount of liquid. We can abandon tasting for drinks that have a degree of latitude in accuracy. Or we can measure properly.

One of the easiest ways to reduce error in the result of any experiment is to reduce the percentage of error in measurement. In a bar, the easiest way to do this is to increase the quantities – to batch drinks. This allows more time to use measures accurately, and also reduces the number of tasting occasions on a shift to a manageable level.

Unfortunately, unless like White Lyan you make a virtue of batching, a lot of the theatre of bartending can be lost, along with the personal reward of crafting truly exceptional and individual drinks – which pleases nobody.

Instead we could accept that our tools are not up to task and focus our bartender ingenuity on designing useful new ones. No one needs an even longer spoon, or a more thermodynamically inefficient mixing glass. Sharp & Dapper has the armband and suspenders market sewn up, but no one has yet come up with a truly effective way to measure all spirits.

Like any great invention, it must be realistic (there go all the weight based systems), affordable and foolproof. It’s now about time someone has their eureka moment.

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