I once had a fellow bartender, the best bartender I've ever known, in fact, tell me that making drinks was the least important part of his job. Obviously, good drinks are a pretty essential part of the profession, and his comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but his point is a valid one. He was driving at the idea that bartending is really about the people consuming the drinks, not the drinks themselves. And while I still believe he's right, it's only true once you've mastered the basics.
The first step to creating great cocktails is ensuring your drinks are properly built, meaning that they have the right proportions. And the best way to do that, especially at the beginning, is to use a measuring device called a jigger.
A Bit of History (Mythology)
The term jigger came about from the small tumbler that the Bosun on a ship used to issue the day's ration of rum. Because the sailors liked to complain that the amount was too little, they named the measuring device after the smallest mast on the ship, the jigger mast. It turns out that the measurement was approximately 1½ ounces and eventually, cups designed to serve exactly that amount came to be known as "jiggers". Smaller cups that served one ounce were known as "ponies". As time went on, a two-sided, hourglass-shaped cup, one side equipped with a "jigger shot" and the other with a "pony shot", came to be a standard part of the pre-prohibition barkeeps kit.
These days, a jigger is a generic term for any device used to measure booze and mixers for a drink and they needn't be 1½ ounces in volume. Many have different volumes and/or graduated markings inside the bowl to indicate different measurements, anything from an eighth of an ounce to three ounces.
To Jigger or Not To Jigger
If, like me, you read a lot of articles and blogs about the profession of bartending, you may be under the impression that this age old, sometimes divisive question is all but decided, and that no one in the industry ever free pours to measure their ingredients anymore. Vocal personalities within the industry have, in recent years, portrayed the free-pouring bartender as a wasteful, uncaring dullard not at all concerned with the consistency of her drinks or the happiness of her patrons. Others allow that free pouring is ok as long as the bartender is using a Boston Shaker with a transparent mixing glass so they can get a visual confirmation that their drink is at the right level once all the ingredients have been added.
Although the characterization of the lazy bartender is sometimes true, it often isn't. I know many professional bartenders who free pour and have drinks that come out perfect every time. It isn't easy, for sure, different spirits and liqueurs and syrups all have different specific densities and pour at different rates. However, free pouring is a skill, that, like any other, can be honed and mastered.
That said, for the home bartender who isn't making hundreds of drinks every night or the pro just starting out, jiggering is absolutely the way to go. If you want to get to the point where you can free pour, I suggest that you count your pour every time you fill your jigger to get the hang of it. For a more detailed explanation on how to free pour, go here.
Selecting a Jigger
As the image above shows, there are a lot of different styles of jiggers on the market these days, some more practical than others. As I say before all my tool recommendations, ultimately the right jigger for you is what you're most comfortable with. But I will offer you some points to consider.
First, anything with a handle is out. The handle makes the jigger difficult to manipulate quickly and tends to get in the way of other things on the bar. I'm not sure why some jiggers have handles, I've never really been able to discern the purpose, I mean, it's not like the jigger is difficult to pick up without the handle.
Next, a lot of jiggers are sold as a set. Many bartenders I know use such a system but I've found having more than one jigger on the bar to be more hassle than it's worth. I'm constantly grabbing the wrong jigger and having to peer at the measurement on the side to ensure I've got the right one. And they take up valuable space on your bartop. I've found that a single jigger with laser-etched (not printed) interior graduations marking other volumes to be the best option for me.
A final point of consideration is the shape of the jigger itself. A taller, thinner jigger is more accurate than a shorter, wider jigger. The reason is the difference in surface area at the lip or interior etching. An overpour in a jigger with a large surface area will be off by a greater margin than an overpour in a jigger with a smaller surface area. In some jiggers, a tiny overpour will result in a measurement that's off by a quarter ounce or more, which can significantly alter the drink and also cost you or your bar lots of money.
Nearly every bartender I currently work with uses this jigger and loves it. I used it for a while and found that over time, the printed interior graduations wore away until they were barely readable but it's probably a great option for home use. I really like this one from Cocktail Kingdom (as you'll find, I like a lot of their stuff). Since I use my jigger every day, I opted for the more resilient stainless steel model but if you're willing to hand wash your tools, their gold-plated and copper-plated options are beautiful too.