Tapping Into a Trend: Kegged Cocktails

“Efficiency” doesn’t get a lot of mentions in discussions of the craft cocktail movement—saving time wasn’t the goal of the shift toward offering more thoughtfully crafted, carefully built libations. But efficiency remains a top concern for operators looking to maximize their adult beverage profits, especially in light of the fact that drink sales slowed in restaurants and bars in 2013. Speedily delivered drinks = happy customers, and being able to serve up an interesting cocktail quickly can help operators create the kind of experience that will prompt guests to return (and/or order a second round).

Enter the cocktails-on-tap trend. After emerging in cocktail-culture hotbeds such as New York and San Francisco a few years ago, the trend of prebatched drinks has gained stream in markets across the country and is poised to reach mainstream status, says Kathy Casey, president of Seattle-based beverage consultancy Liquid Kitchen.

“It has absolutely blown up,” Casey says. Casey and Liquid Kitchen Senior Educator Dӓnny Ronen cite Boston, Los Angeles and Kansas City as among the markets in which kegged cocktails are on a roll. But today’s cocktails on tap are a far cry from the vats of frozen premixed margaritas of decades past—and that’s why consumers and operators alike are warming to them. The trend is all about scaling up recipes for complex drinks in the name of speed and consistency while maintaining a focus on high-quality ingredients. In other words, it’s “growing volume without compromising quality,” says Casey.

Consider the Turista at Tavernita in Chicago—the drink (one of a half-dozen kegged cocktails on offer) features Herradura Tequila Blanco, preserved cherries, grapefruit, black-pepper syrup, lime and barbecue bitters. Tavernita has enjoyed strong popularity since opening in Chicago’s bustling River North neighborhood in 2011, and offering a lineup of cocktails on tap creates efficiency that is highly valuable especially in a high-volume operation. Plus, from the consumer perspective, kegged cocktails have “kind of a fun appeal,” Casey notes. Consumers are “loving the presentation and the quality,” she says.

Where to start in developing a cocktails-on-tap program? “Know your audience,” advises Ronen. “If you’re serving a lot of Singapore slings”—or other drinks with a lengthy ingredient list—“it makes sense,” he says. Popular drinks with more-mainstream flavor profiles—think whiskey-and-ginger cocktails, for example—also are good candidates for prebatching. Some of the time saved in pouring the cocktail can be used to add a final squeeze of lime or an eye-catching fresh garnish for good effect.  

It’s important for operators to recognize that scaling up recipes doesn’t mean merely multiplying the volume of each ingredient used, Ronen notes; it’s easy for the flavor balance of the drink to be thrown off if this approach is taken. Syrups, juices and citrus fruits in particular demand close attention and sampling for quality control, he says. 

And at the staff level, adds Casey, “It can’t be willy-nilly who’s prebatching this stuff.” The same attention to detail required in making an individual cocktail is required in making volume drinks, and the task of prebatching should be assigned accordingly. Also, it’s vital to have dedicated equipment and measuring tools for prebatched cocktails. “Don’t borrow equipment from the kitchen,” Casey warns. A container used to store salsa is not a wise impromptu choice for holding cocktail ingredients.

In the end, “it’s all about spending a little extra time on prep” to get the execution desired, Ronen says. The biggest pitfall for cocktails on tap, he says, are “people who are looking for shortcuts rather than taking something great and building efficiency into it.”

Across the U.S., operators are showcasing drinks ranging from house originals to contemporary twists on classic favorites on tap. Following is a sample of their kegged offerings:

  • Citizen Grape, Tavernita, Chicago: Leblon cachaça, Espirit de June liqueur, lemon and house-made grape soda
  • Barrel-Aged Negroni, Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, Portland, ME: With gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, aged six weeks in a New England Distilling whiskey barrel
  • Vieux Carré, Imperial, Portland, OR: Rye whiskey, Hennessy cognac, Italian vermouth, Benedictine, and Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters
  • Zombie, Acabar, Los Angeles: Jamaican rum, Puerto Rican rum, Lemon-Hart 151, lime, Don’s Mix and falernum
  • In the Air Tonight punch, Michael Mina 74, Miami Beach, FL: 10 Cane rum, pineapple, sage, lime juice, velvet falernum
  • Manhattan on Tap, Saxon + Parole, New York City: Parole whiskey, Martini & Rossi vermouth, leather bitters, filthy cherry
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Christine LaFave Grace

Christine LaFave Grace writes for and produces Technomic's Trends & Directions e-newsletters. She joined Technomic in 2013 as an associate editor. Her previous roles include assistant digital editor for Crain Communications’ Modern Healthcare magazine and associate editor at Reed Business Information’s Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

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