Tavernita's Quixote on tap
magnify Click image to view more.

A Barrel of Drafts

Jeffery Lindenmuth / July 2012

Staying one step ahead of the pulsing scene, busy bartenders are keeping crowds happy and generating buzz by mixing cocktails in kegs and dispensing them on tap.

Would you like your cocktail shaken, stirred, or on draft? Taking their cue from the success of wine on tap (see The Tapping Point, June 2010), mixologists have expanded upon the popular practice of batching cocktails, placing their compounds in kegs that can be tapped with the ease of draft beer or wine. For a recent event celebrating the birthday of Negroni namesake Count Negroni at The Shanty in Brooklyn, New York, Allen Katz combined equal parts of his Dorothy Parker American Gin (produced at New York Distilling Company), Cinzano Sweet Vermouth, and Campari, then rolled out a barrel of the drink to a thirsty crowd of more than 260 people.

“There really is no special equipment or anything that complicated about it,” says Katz. “We used a Micro Matic pony keg, previously used for cider, made sure the line was clean, and added our cocktail, diluting it with filtered water.” In order to simulate the dilution of a conventionally mixed drink, Katz simply stirred one Negroni cocktail with ice, measured the amount of water added by the process, and then introduced the correct proportion to the recipe. Each prechilled Negroni was served on a single 2-inch square ice cube.

Keg equipment for such simple applications is not unlike that used for craft beer and wine, most often 20-liter kegs sourced from homebrew supply specialists. As with wine, a few pounds of pressure of gas are sufficient to push the mixture through the line, while higher pressures are able to force gas into cold solutions for effervescent cocktails, using the familiar beer and soda formulas.

At Saxon + Parole, an AvroKO restaurant located in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, bar manager Naren Young offers a Manhattan cocktail on tap, while still preserving the punctilios of the venerable drink. “We draft the premixed proportions using a low-pressure beer keg, but we then stir the drink with ice. It would be remiss of us to abandon the theater and elegance of the drink,” he explains.

Priced at $15, Saxon + Parole’s Manhattan On Tap is a combination of W.L. Weller 12 Year Bourbon, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and house-made leather bitters. The drink is tapped, undiluted, into a Japanese Yarai mixing glass, stirred with ice using a gold-plated spoon, then strained into a cocktail glass, with the overflow served in a sidecar seated upon crushed ice. Garnishes include house-cured cherries and an orange zest tied neatly into a bow. “We feel that once you begin to pour everything from a plastic bottle or tap, the magic can be lost,” cautions Young. Saxon + Parole has been operating a bottomless keg of Manhattan cocktails, topping it off as needed, and selling up to 350 of the cocktails each week.

With draft wines and Prosecco under his belt at Graffiato, chef/partner Mike Isabella introduced a house Margarita on tap for the opening of his modern Mexican Bandolero in Washington, D.C., in May. El Bandolero, a blood orange Margarita, is prediluted with water, then tapped to order—served up or on the rocks, with salt or without. “We have the El Bandolero listed in the ‘on tap’ section, right alongside the beers,” says Isabella. “It introduces the beer drinkers to the idea of a signature cocktail. We don’t really have concerns about shelf life because we are making it and putting it in the keg fresh every day. At $10 a drink, they’re flowing all day long!”

Following the success of the inaugural Negroni for the keg cocktail program at Granville Room in Vancouver in February, Trevor Kallies, bar & beverage director for Donnelly Group, was eager to wander from the path of the familiar. “We decided to get a little cheeky and put a Long Island Iced Tea on draft. We just turned up the pressure, and you slowly achieve carbonation,” says Kallies. Heightening the irony, Kallies mixed the drink using premium ingredients: Smirnoff Vodka, El Jimador Tequila, Beefeater Gin, Havana Club Rum, and Cointreau, with a splash of cola. “We were not exactly selling a ton of Long Island Iced Teas before this, but we went through the first 20-liter batch in three days, and then a second,” says Kallies. “All the top bartenders in Vancouver were coming in to try it.” In the weeks since, Granville Room has tapped Paloma, the Mexican mainstay of Tequila and grapefruit soda, and a take on the Pimm’s Cup, infusing the fresh fruits in the drink before kegging.

According to Kallies, the local brewers and beers salespeople were “not that stoked” about the prospect of losing one of Granville Room’s six beer taps to cocktails. In a nod of solidarity perhaps, Kallies has brought the draft line full circle, offering beer cocktails for the opening celebration of Vancouver Craft Beer Week. Combining Driftwood Brewery Fat Tug IPA with Cointreau, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s Bitters results in an orangey-bitter brew, dubbed Hopsicle. “The benefits are huge when we do events like this. Now we can take kegs of mixed drinks with us so easily,” he enthuses.

For on-premise application, however, most kegged cocktails offer few advantages beyond their novelty. Unlike kegged wine and beer, the spirits are still shipped and emptied from wasteful glass bottles, so there is no savings for the environment or the bottom line. For Tad Carducci, co-founder of New York–based beverage consultancy Tippling Bros., the savings are realized in terms of service—the ability to serve great drinks, quickly and consistently—encouraging him to pioneer an ambitious draft cocktail and drinks program at Chicago’s Tavernita, from Mercadito Hospitality, where nothing is off limits, including fresh citrus and other juices.

“We have 10 cocktails on tap and probably nine of them are using fresh juices or other fresh ingredients,” says Carducci. The volumes are also staggering: most cocktails are mixed in 80- or 100-liter batches, meaning up to 500 cocktails at a time. All priced between $10 and $12, among the top-selling draft cocktails, according to Carducci, are Booty Collins (green tea–infused Absolut Vodka, passion fruit, fresh lemon, cayenne, yohimbe) and The Turista (Hornitos Tequila Blanco, preserved cherries, fresh grapefruit, black pepper syrup, fresh lime, barbecue bitters). Even with their extensive expertise in batching drinks, the program presented multiple hurdles for Tippling Bros. First, there are legal hurdles that vary by locale, where serving spirits from anything other than the bottle they come in can present problems, cautions Carducci. Never assume that kegging or infusing a spirit is legal, just because others are doing it. Through chemical testing of pH levels and empirical tasting, they determined the lifespan of fresh juice under different gases, and developed customized blends of CO2, nitrogen, and argon for different applications. Special tubing to withstand the effects of citrus and sugar was selected. An automatic line cleaning apparatus was installed as well.

At Tavernita, the draft cocktails are rounded out with several dozen draft lines offering beer, wines, cider, vermouth, and house-made sangria. “We truly have created a juggernaut of a thing,” says Carducci. But rather than just serving fresh cocktails from kegs as a way to buck the system, Carducci sees them as a way to make it better. “We’ve gauged service and ticket time, and the improvements from the keg cocktails are amazing. We can easily serve 700 people in an evening with three bartenders, and we’ve even accomplished it with only two.”

Although they currently lack some of the practical savings of kegged beer and wine, cocktails from kegs could prove to be the way the service industry finally catches up with consumers’ soaring thirst for handcrafted drinks. “We’ve created a culture of people who appreciate and demand cocktails, and part of that required moving away from the convenience of sour mix and preservatives,” says Carducci. “Now the quality has arrived, but we need to look at practical service again. We believe nobody should have to wait for a great cocktail.”