Words by: Matt Grippo
Pre-batched cocktails served on draught using technology originally developed to dispense beer and wine allow consistently good drinks to be dispensed incredibly quickly. Draught cocktails at their best are batched at the bar using fresh ingredients rather than being a way of serving ready-to-serve brands on draught rather from a bottle or can.
Although the benefits for bar operators are obvious, many fear that pre-prepared cocktails pumped out of cold storage will destroy craft cocktails and erode bartending skills. However, used well in high-end venues such dispensing solutions supplement rather than replace made to order cocktails. Quickly delivered consistently good draught cocktails certainly improve the customer experience.
The Shoreditch House group have embraced draught cocktails. According to Tom Kerr, Bars Manager for Europe, "It's all based around speed of service. Guests can stand at the bar, order six cocktails and have them in their hands in two minutes. And they always say they'd never have guessed the drinks were on-tap." At the group's Shoreditch House in London, batches as large as 30 litres of each cocktail are prepared daily and placed in what Tom likens to gigantic, and crucially disposable, plastic bags. Each fresh batch is kept in its own new casing and stored in the cold room alongside the kegs of beer. Once a guest orders a drink the cocktail is pumped up to the bar, in exactly the same way beer is. On its way up the drink will go through a flash cooler, chilling it to a cold -3 degrees.
Draught cocktails are here to stay and are set to become more ubiquitous.
By Matt Grippo, Bar Manager at Blackbird in San Francisco
About a year and a half ago my boss Shawn Vergara (proprietor of Blackbird) sent me a link to a video online. A short piece about Erik Castro's (at the time) almost opened "Polite Provisions". After viewing it a few times, I realized I'd better figure out how draught cocktails worked. Shortly after this exchange, I travelled to LA and San Diego to experience first-hand what draught cocktails were like in some world class cocktail bars and how can I learn how to pull them off at the bar I manage, Blackbird.
Even though this trend has been building steam for a few years, there's not a ton out there on the "how to" aspect of it. There are only a few stories here and there, mostly to do with carbonating small batches of cocktails. After cornering Alex Day and harassing him via email (thank you for your insight Alex) and a lot of trial and error, I have figured a few things out about this ultra-convenient and fantastically efficient way of serving drinks. Here I will break it down into the most basic way of explaining it and how you can get started on your own draught cocktail program. Taking away the mystery and over technological aspects.
The most important factors involved are:
1. Do you have refrigeration i.e. a walk-in cooler?
2. Do you have gas pushing draught beers or draught wines?
If the answer is yes to both you are way ahead of the game. Best-case scenario is you run a cocktail program that offers wine or beer on draught. Even better is if you sell more cocktails than either of these and would like to give some tap real estate over to a cocktail or two. Gas and cold refrigeration are two essential things needed to run a cocktail on tap. Once you have made the decision to put a cocktail on draught the next step is to pick what style. Punch? Still? Carbonated? The type of line you will dedicate to cocktails will influence the conclusion. Wine system? You can push a pre-diluted "still" or stirred cocktail, even something simple like sangria. Beer line? You can do a punch style cocktail, or even better a carbonated cocktail. Carbonation is something I have really embraced at Blackbird. It's the only thing most bartenders are unable to achieve a la minute, unless you're Dave Arnold. I have a small 4-tap program where all the cocktails are carbonated. We can get into this later but for now let's get back to choosing what will work best for you.
So wine systems use nitrogen to push the wine. Due to the lack of oxygen, the nitrogen will preserve the wine, hence little to zero oxidation over time. Also, dispensing with nitrogen doesn't foam like it would if pushed on a beer system with CO2. If you are low volume and think it might take a while to go through five gallons (19 litres) of a cocktail, pick something stable such a spirit forward cocktail like a Manhattan or Negroni. If you are higher volume and think you can get through that keg in a couple days the sky is the limit. You can get creative with juices or syrups and won't need to worry about things spoiling.
Beer systems are pushed with CO2 or sometimes a mixed gas. This gas adds carbonation and body to your cocktail. One of the reasons we love beer so much is the body that it receives from carbonation. You can translate that into your cocktails. You can push a punch or a carbonated cocktail on a beer system. Just like with nitrogen you want to base your decisions on volume. Don't waste time and money on a cocktail people won't recognize and want to order. I kept my program of draught cocktails extremely easy to understand from a customer standpoint so they would sell like hotcakes. Our Pimm's Cup is a perfect example. Even someone who doesn't know much about cocktails knows what a Pimm's Cup is, and if they don't they can see it has gin, cucumber and ginger - three very recognizable ingredients that a huge proportion of our guests enjoy.
OK, now we know what style of drink we want to create, next step is a few technical tweaks we need to make and a couple purchases. First thing to get is a Cornelius keg or soda keg. I strongly suggest buying new over refurbished. I started my trial and error with a group of refurbished kegs and it just wasted my time, if there is a leak it will throw everything off (possibly wasting time and money) so buy a new keg. You can find these at home brew supply stores.
Another way to control spoilage is to use a smaller keg, it might not be a bad idea to start with a small one or purchase one to test certain drinks out. I also prefer ball locks to pin locks for the connection. If your are familiar enough with draught systems and want to DIY then next would be to switch your connector to the two ball lock connections to fit your Cornelius keg, an air-in and an air-out or dispense. Otherwise, just contact your draught system provider and they can do this for you in about ten minutes. Now you can hook up your new keg and serve almost anything you want.
Before you get too excited, I will explain the next step to ensure your product is going to successful. Dilution and homogenization are the keys to making flawless draught cocktails. If you want to serve a simple spirit forward cocktail then this is a breeze, simply measure how much your volume increases after stirring to your desired dilution and then calculate proportionately to make a batch that fits your keg. This same theory works for punch style drinks, just measure the increased dilution after shaking, if you are the uber technical type, you can weigh these factors for a more accurate result. Filtered water works best for a consistent product. If you are using syrup or juices you want to make sure the cocktail is homogenized as well as possible. For the Pimm's on draught I take my house-made ginger syrup and fresh pressed cucumber juice combined and run them through a fine strainer to remove large particles and then through a fine gauge super bag or a nut milk bag. This will help the cocktail to incorporate better and keep particles from clogging lines. When your batch is diluted and homogenized you are ready to fill your keg and serve. Connect your "air in" connection to fill the keg with gas. Once you hear gas start to enter the keg you should see the seal of your keg push up. An essential step is to flush out any oxygen remaining in the keg. To achieve this pull the valve up a few times to release pressure and allow the gas to flush out oxygen. Now connect your "air out" or dispense line to the keg and you are ready to rock. Depending on how long your lines are, set the regulator at around 6 PSI to dispense, results may vary and adjust as needed.
For those of you interested in carbonating a cocktail there is one more step. Everything I have stated above still applies. There are two ways you can carbonate. Either on the line you intend to dispense with or by installing a "charging station" in your walk-in. With either approach you will have to connect the gas to your "air in" with the regulator turned up to around 60 psi. Then pass the gas through just as before to remove oxygen. There are several theories as to how the gas is infused into the contents of the keg. I charge at 60psi for 48 hours and everything must be kept as cold as possible. Using carbonated water to dilute will help tremendously. If you want to shake the keg or turn it upside down some say this helps increase carbonation results. One thing I do know is that cold temperatures play the largest role and in my experience 40% water, or carbonated water in the batch is the sweet spot. Lower alcohol by volume cocktails have a better potential for a good carbonation, as alcohol is what resists the CO2.