When a bartender whips up cocktails before the eyes of guests, it is not merely a utilitarian conduit to sliding over a Sazerac. Twisting the bar spoon and dropping in precise splashes of bitters are sensorial elements that are vital to the interactive drink-making ritual. Sometimes, however, it is more convenient for patrons and staff alike to turn to beer-esque libations that are pulled from the tap. These pre-made draft concoctions—consistent, stable, and not dependent upon a bartender’s à la minute skills—once seemed like an amusingly passing fancy. Yet, they remain profit drivers, unfurled with care and precision as any lot of made-to-order tipples.
“Draft cocktails, much like craft cocktails as a whole, have grown, changed, adapted, and transitioned. Draft cocktails seemed a fad because even industry leaders weren’t sure they could stand the quality test,” says Angela Kuzma, corporate director of food & beverage for Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group, which includes the Hotel Covington in Kentucky. There, at Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar, the Milwaukee consultants Bittercube developed on-tap riffs for two classics: the Paloma and the Mule, which goes by the name Liquid Knowledge.
One interesting aspect of the tap approach, Kuzma points out, is that along with simplicity it allows for interesting flavor combinations. The ginger- and lime-dominant Mule, for instance, also features lavender, vanilla, yuzu, and molasses. Because vessels are an integral part of Kentucky drinking culture, the Liquid Knowledge, she adds, is served in a bespoke mug that “tells a story of Kentucky with relevance.”
At the Continental in Naples, Florida, quasi-draft quaffs like An Italian in NYC (Bulleit bourbon, Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, cherry, orange bitters) are presented in eye-catching, science-reminiscent orbs. “We put two or three of the base ingredients of each cocktail in the orbs to allow the flavors to merge and marinate with each other. When it’s time to make the drink, we’ll take a certain amount out of the orb and then add the rest of the ingredients: fresh-squeezed juices, house-made bitters, liqueurs, and such,” explains bar manager Barry Larkin. “Our guests love the orbs hanging behind the bar. It sparks conversation with bartenders and opens the door to our entire cocktail program.”
David Toby, beverage director of Salt Traders Coastal Cooking in Round Rock, Texas, says that in some cities, especially in the suburbs, “on-tap cocktails still have a wow factor.” That’s why his restaurant features two, including the Gin & House-made Tonic, made with Treaty Oak Distilling Co.’s Waterloo Gin from Austin and a syrup composed of cinchona bark, lime zest, lemongrass, salt, sugar, and allspice berries that is carbonated for two weeks before running through the tap system. The Rum Around, a take on the fruity Rum Runner with light rum, dark rum, Bacardi 151, pineapple juice, orange juice, apricot brandy, and house-made grenadine, is a “tropical-style drink that reminds guests of relaxing on a beach,” Toby notes.
A draft gin and tonic, with red hibiscus tea–infused Farmer’ s organic gin and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Small Batch Tonic, also makes its way onto the menu at 1921 by Norman Van Aken in Mount Dora, Florida. “Gin and tonic has long been a favorite so we decided to elevate this classic with our own Florida flair of hibiscus tea, orange rind, and herbs. It’s the perfect refreshing and satisfying blend of bubbles and flavor,” says bar manager Chelsea Harkness.
The restaurant also uses the tap to showcase the seasons. In the autumn, for example, a Red Sangria with Argentinian Malbec, Porto, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Pierre Ferrand dry orange curacao, honey syrup, and a house-made reduction of apple cider, fall spices, and red currant was a fitting warm-up to comforting beer-battered fish tacos and Korean fried chicken.
The gin and tonic is indeed an easy-drinking cocktail, but as Toby and Harkness’s versions attest, just because it’s sprung from the tap is no excuse for a less than top-notch one. At the Cannibal L.A., bar manager Dan McClary brings together Aviation gin with a house tonic syrup encompassing ginger, lemongrass, cinchona bark, orange, lemon, lime, juniper berries, and a spice blend. It’s a draft alternative to his Old Fashioned starring Medley Brothers whiskey, demerara sugar, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, and orange oil. “At first glance, I guess some will feel draft cocktails might be of a lesser quality, but this is simply not true. Everyone I know uses premium spirits and carefully builds these concoctions for consistency, balance, and creativity. To me, that’s genius,” says McClary, who was inspired by the wine-on-tap movement. “The ability to keg a wine and pour through a vacuum line at the correct temperature, limiting the amount of things that can go wrong, just makes sense. Along those same lines, if you can build a pre-mixed cocktail, preserve its quality, and ensure consistency, then why not?”
Restaurants highlight this pre-made genre of cocktails in different ways. Geoffrey Rich, bar manager of the RingSide Grill in Portland, Oregon, places the draft Manhattans and Margaritas, which are priced slightly cheaper than other house cocktails, in a separate menu section. “The large-scale format and speed of execution are useful in selling two of our most popular drinks,” he says. Likewise, Salt Traders Coastal Cooking spotlights the Gin & Housemade Tonic and Rum Around “because we want them to move. It is something different and fun for the guest, but also a great margin for us. They’re in our top five lowest-cost drinks,” says Toby.
Tap cocktails at the Hotel Covington are integrated into the cohesive beverage menu, but listing CO2 as an ingredient, says Kuzma, often proves a talking point. Such ingenuity resonates with customers. “They often inquire about batching, measuring, and are even more intrigued to find out how the modern process works. We explain how it is portioned into individual servings, pressurized with our nitrous or carbon systems, and then fed through a glycol-cooled line that runs under the bar just like our Florida craft beers,” says Harkness.
This dialogue is also an economic boon to the bar. While “the guest gets to enjoy a consistent cocktail that is pre-batched to certain specifications,” says Larkin, “the speed of this service is great for the restaurant’s bottom line as more drinks can be served at a faster pace.” Sometimes, hustle is just as desirable to impatient guests as imagination. Draft drinks can promise both.