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Guarding Your Margins

behind the bar
Strawberry Marguerita

Bars are often nickled and dimed into ruin, or considering today’s high prices, they’re quartered to death. And it happens with almost every flick of the wrist. The culprit is lax or nonexistent portion controls. A drink’s sales price is hinged to a specified portion of alcohol; if the amount of spirit fluctuates, the drink’s profit margin will waver as well.

If your bartender overpours an ounce portion of alcohol by a mere one-quarter ounce, the resulting drink’s cost will increase 25 percent. After three more similar overpours, you’ve lost an entire drink’s worth of product and the sales proceeds it would have generated.

Another problem is that each of these drinks now contains 25 percent more alcohol. In today’s .08 society, most people are acutely aware of the consequences of overconsumption and set limits for themselves. Serving potent beverages reduces the number of drinks people can safely consume and increases the risk of legal liability. Underpouring, a common scam that lines many a bartender’s pocket, is an equally vexing problem. Instead of pouring, for example, the specified one and one-quarter ounces of spirits in a drink, the bartender cuts short the pour at an ounce. After the fourth short-pour, the bartender has created a surplus of the spirit, which he is free to sell and pocket the proceeds. The bar’s pour cost and profits will be unaffected, and the theft will likely go undetected. The true victims of the scheme are your guests and the bar’s good name.


Of the four different methods that can be used to portion spirits at a bar, no technique is clearly superior. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and you’ll need to assess the acceptability of each for your concept, clientele, and operation.

Free Pouring

This technique relies on an internal cadence to estimate the rate of flow. This fast method of preparing mixed drinks (one hand holds the spirits bottle while the other is free to dispense the mixer) is advantageous in high-volume operations. In addition, a bartender requires little training to attain proficiency in free pouring Shortcomings of the method include inconsistency and inaccurately gauging the legitimacy of the pour. It’s easier for bartenders to underpour or overpour spirits using this technique.


Handheld Measuring

This process uses jiggers or shot glasses, which make it easier to perceive how much alcohol is being poured. Jiggers decrease inadvertent overpouring or underpouring and greatly facilitate drink consistency.
Hand measuring is accurate, but it is also the slowest method of dispensing spirits. Two hands are required to pour a shot: one to hold the bottle and the other to hold the jigger. Training and practice are necessary before bartenders can master the technique and attain the necessary wrist speed. Jiggers also can retain the residue of the previously poured product, thereby affecting the taste of subsequent drinks.

Bottle-Attached Control Devices

Innovative pour spouts capable of delivering precise measurements rely on a ball-bearing assembly to cut off the flow of fluid at the prescribed measure. These unobtrusive devices pour
like a conventional spout and require no specialized training. Another advantage is that they are concept-friendly; they can be used at any type of beverage operation without negative feedback from patrons.

Two potential drawbacks are that they are designed to deliver only one measurement, thereby restricting a bartender’s pouring flexibility, and that they must be clean to function properly.

Spirit-Control Systems

These devices are so effective at controlling spirits costs and reducing theft behind the bar that their return on investment is typically a year or less. Many of these systems are capable
of interfacing with a point-of- sale (POS) system; every drink poured is registered immediately, making the bartender accountable for every sale. At the end of a shift, all of the operational data is downloaded into a series of reports detailing exactly what was poured and at what price. There are many products on the market, including all-bottle systems, towers, under-counter systems, and freestanding countertop configurations. Installation costs, service reliability, and return on investment are criteria that should be considered prior to purchase. There is a downside to these systems. Portion control is the primary objective, but if guests find the technology off-putting or inhospitable, the cost savings will seem inconsequential compared to the loss of goodwill and the damage done to the business’s image.

Spirits-control technology is a sign of the future. Between the growing concern over DUI issues and steadily rising costs, strict spirits control will more likely be the standard rather than the exception and may even someday become a licensing requirement.

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