We know the jigger. We love the jigger. We love to watch as a bartender pours quantities of alcohol into the jigger, flips it, and pours more. But where did this curious little tool come from? And how did it get it’s name?
It’s not the weirdest term in the drinking world—there’s always “Scuppernong”—but jigger does sound like some kind of old-timey dance. (“Mathias, I dare say you do the heartiest jigger in all of Bucks County!”) But it’s actually just the name for the set of small, attached, inverted cups that bartenders use to measure out liquor and juice quantities for cocktails. (There’s also a kind of bug called a jigger, but since it actually burrows into human skin, we’re gonna set that topic aside for now.)
Typically jiggers come in two standard sizes, the measurements being those of the larger and smaller cup, respectively. There’s the 1 ounce and ½ ounce jigger and the slightly bigger 1 ½ ounces and ¾ ounce jigger. Since most cocktails call for quantities by the ounce, jiggers are a useful and pretty efficient way for a bartender to make sure the drink you’re getting has the right amount of booze without having to whip out an actual measuring cup. Even though the design of a jigger is sort of functionally dictated, you can still find some subtle variations in style. (This textured copper jigger actually has 2 ounce and 1 ounce cups, and looks pretty damn stylish if you’re asking us.)
So where did this little contraption get its name? People have actually been pretty curious, if you believe this cocktail discussion board anyway. One explanation attributes the name to sailors in the British navy, who nicknamed their daily ration of booze (God save the Queen!) after the “jiggermast” sails on their ships. One commenter on the discussion board was so kind as to provide the extensive Oxford English Dictionary definition. There’s mention there of the boy who supplied canal laborers with whiskey; known as the Jiggar boss, “he goes on the canal and carries a half gill (half noggin) of Whiskey to every man sixteen times a day!” Another explanation seems to associate the term with the drink itself: “The ‘jigger’ was a dram of less than a gill, taken [5 times a day].” And there’s an 1879 mention in the New York Herald, saying simply “A jigger is a conical metal cup in which to mix fancy drinks.” Not so much an explanation of the name, but proof the term was in use as it is today in the 19th Century.
When in doubt, we like to look to cocktail historian and general man about town Dave Wondrich, who generously supplied his expertise to the discussion forum with an incredibly simple explanation: “The word ‘jigger’ is related to the American word ‘thingamajig,” both of them meaning basically ‘object or device that has no other name.’”
We’re fine with that explanation, and not just because we trust any man with an awesome Civil War-looking beard. As long as the liquor goes in the little cups, and then into our cocktails, you can call it whatever you like.