Everything You Need to Know About Draft Cocktails
In what’s being read by some as a backlash to the craft cocktail trend, you can now get elaborate cocktails on tap—no shaking, no stirring, and no drama. At a new watering hole in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, every cocktail is on tap. (You can also get your taxes done there—one reality-bracing drink included.)
This represents a sea change from the bevy of bearded, suspenders-strapped “mixologists” who have swept the nation in recent years. And as is true of most trends, it has both adherents and critics within the bar community at large.
Being able to pull a lever to get a drink isn’t a sparkling-new fad, notes Tad Carducci, co-founder of the Tippling Bros, a beverage consulting company that frequently outfits bars with nitrogen- and carbon dioxide-powered cocktail tap lines. He’s been doing this since 2010, when he consulted on a now-shuttered Chicago bar and restaurant Tavernita. “When we kind of got into the game, there were maybe a small handful of people tinkering with it around the country.”
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He and his partner were inspired by a trip to San Sebastián and Barcelona, where there’s a long tradition of serving vermouth on tap: “I kind of fell in love with the idea of that service.” Eventually, he wrangled 12 cocktails on tap at Tavernita, in addition to a full bar for making drinks on the spot. Are tap cocktails as good as those made to order? “Yes,” says Carducci, “in many applications. When well-executed they can be, but they can suck ass, too.”
This measured opinion was echoed by spirits expert and historian David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! and drinks correspondent for Esquire Magazine. “When well done, to me they're indistinguishable from regular ones,” Wondrich emailed us. He added, “I do miss the whole ritual of mixing the drink, though (I'm a strong believer that psychological factors affect our palates). When poorly done, they're indistinguishable from Snapple.” Indeed, when we stopped by Yours, Sincerely, an Old Fashioned made with date-infused bourbon was fantastic, as was a piña colada poured right from the tap. A micro-cocktail called Chaos Theory, however, evoked its name, eliciting a cacophony of chicory, molasses, and rum notes.
The major issues that plague on-tap cocktails, says Carducci, are “not paying attention to standards like cleaning of lines and kegs (which can throw off flavors), not understanding the ratio of scaling up one drink to 100, and not adding proper amount of dilution.” Think about it: A draft cocktail is poured directly over ice or served at room temperature, so you aren’t getting the dilution of someone stirring or shaking your drink, and might end up with something extremely potent in the absence of that shaking or stirring.
There are also concerns of freshness and safety. Consider a keg of margaritas, nestled in a bar’s basement: If there’s fresh lime juice in there, says Carducci, who says he has tested this extensively, you can only stretch that keg of margs’ lifespan “to about five days without any real degradation in flavor.” After that amount of time, he says, “Ph levels will start to change, and there are enzymatic reactions…but when it comes to flavor profiles, the guest’s palate is the best judge.” (At Yours Sincerely, co-owner Julian Mohamed emails us, drinks are now made using organic food-derived acids and citrus tinctures, helping avoid this issue.)
If you’re serving carbonated cocktails on tap, adds Carducci (which Yours Sincerely does for eight of its drinks), you’re using carbon dioxide, which presents a whole host of issues that are less dominant with nitrogen: “When you’re putting something into a keg and then forcing volumes of pressure into the thing, and then hooking it up to a line under more pressure to serve it, there are definitely safety concerns.” He notes that training protocol and “having everything done by the letter” is crucial.
Carducci is obviously a fan of the boom, as it’s part of his business, and he thinks if bars invest in smart big-batch recipes, they could benefit from barkeeps being able to turn out a ton of good drinks, fast. (Picture going out with a crew to a busy bar on a weekend—and each of you snagging a fancy cocktail in minutes.) But he sounded a sobering note: “If we’re not careful, we could go right back to that period between the ’60s and the ’80s where drinks were these highly processed, mass-produced garbage that were very easy to make.”
That concern was reiterated by Sean Kenyon, a third-generation bartender and owner of Williams & Graham in Denver, Colorado. “The overall reason I’m not a fan of draft cocktails [traces to] our resurgence as an industry—cocktail bars are 5 percent of the revenue in our business, but 80 percent of the influence.” Nodding to pioneers like Dale DeGroff, who helped revive the craft and history of bartending, he says, “We’ve been trying for a long time…to bring back the craft of bartending, and to make it a respectable career again.” He worries, too, that with on-tap conveniences we’ll find ourselves back in the era of “sour mix on the gun.”
Another thing lost, says Kenyon, is the romance of watching someone make a cocktail—and the small talk that accompanies it. “You have no idea how many people [ask questions] when we crack an egg into a cocktail or pour a blue blazer,” he laughs. “People ask ‘Why?’ all the time. That’s a big point of conversation. Nobody’s gonna say, ‘Why did you pull that tap?’”
And what if, Kenyon asks, something goes wrong with the kegs? He worries bar owners might hire mediocre barkeeps who don’t know how to make a proper cocktail—or, just as bad, not have enough personality to charm the customers they serve. He quotes his own father, who turns 70 this year and still slings drinks in Hackensack, New Jersey, “I can train a monkey to pour drinks, but I can’t train a monkey to have a personality.”
“If you think about it,” says Kenyon the younger, “you can literally train a monkey to go up, pour a draft cocktail and hand it to a guest.”