Words by: Ian Cameron
Scott Huth is head bartender at Tavernita in Chicago.With Paul Tanguay and Tad Carducci of The Tippling Bros consultancy it is at Tavernita that the science of cocktails on tap has been pioneered and refined. Today, Tavernita carries a wide range of kegged cocktails, sangrias, vermouth and house-made sodas. By serving drinks that are pre-mixed and pre-diluted the bar has back-ended prep and slashed service times for thirsty drinkers.
We have 10 kegged cocktails at Tavernita, ranging from light style drinks like the Booty Collins (green tea-infused vodka, passionfruit, lemon, cayenne and yohimbe) to bigger, full-flavoured cocktails such as the Comandante Big Nose (hibiscus-infused rum, macadamia, lime, clove and nutmeg) and there's even a take on the G&T on tap, using nitrogen or CO2. We offer red and white sangrias, four types of house-made sodas and even have Dolin vermouth on tap. It takes three minutes to five seconds to serve a cocktail, it's like pouring a beer.
The programme was driven by the sheer number of people we were serving when I was working in a bar in Miami. Most of the time drinks at big group events are really bad, but we wanted to present a cocktail list so would pre-batch cocktails. The problem was you never knew how much of each to make and always ended up with some waste. So we started thinking about how to store batches and keep them fresh. It kinda evolved out of that.
I understand when people raise their eyebrows at what we are doing, but most people don't notice what they have ordered came out of a tap. During our first experiments we made a batch Margarita and put it under nitrogen. We did a taste test with staff and customers and most people couldn't pick out the one under pressure. I haven't had anyone that has argued with me past one cocktail. We do offer cocktails made to order if that's what someone wants - and if someone comes in and they are totally against the idea from the start, I don't think I can change their minds - but most don't even notice.
Does it save time? I would just say it's a 'time-shifting' than a 'time-saving' move. The customer doesn't have to wait but all the action happens back-of-house. In the first six months it was just me and I didn't have a day off. Now, we make batches for three days on average, and are batching the more popular cocktails twice a week, 50 or 100 litres at a time. We're limited by the amount of storage space and you can only hook up so many at a time.
I tend to start by making a small two-litre batch first, then scale it up to 50 or 100 litres . We do pre-dilution and to work out how much water to add, we use the Dave Arnold method where we make a cocktail conventionally, measure its initial weight and final weight after shaking or stirring, and figure out how much water has been added, then scale it up.
Lots of people seem to think you can't put citrus juice in a kegged cocktail.We've found if you have a high enough alcohol content, similar to the alcoholic content of wine, that citrus stays fresh for a decent amount of time, even over two weeks. If you were just going to put in fresh juice under nitrogen on its own, it's not just oxidisation you need to worry about as you will have some enzymatic stuff going on too. I don't want anyone to get the impression that they can put lime under pressure on its own.
We have a bespoke design for the configuration of our lines and kegs. Initially we thought we would have kegs right behind the bar, maybe 5ft of line, but in the end the cooler system got put in basement so the kegs each have 100ft of line to the bar. A specialist draft keg company came in and it had their mouths wide open. It was a question of trial and error in terms of different kegs, the way they hold pressure, particularly when we pressurised with CO2. I remember getting 'pepper sprayed' in the face with a cocktail containing black pepper syrup when I disconnected a keg. As far as I know we have a unique system, we've been looking at patenting it.
I suppose a kegged programme does reduce that performance element of bartending a little bit. A drinker that wanted to have that performance might not be quite as satisfied when 75 per cent of the drinks are served off the keg. From a bartender's perspective I have had my hands in making those cocktails so I still get that satisfaction when I see someone enjoy them or get good feedback from them. The other side to it is when you have six orders from the tables print out and four guests walk up at the same time, it's then that I'm glad you can knock them all out so quickly. If I was going to move on and the next bar I worked at was going to be all cocktails made to order I could still do that, but if the situation fits for the programme I think I would always try and incorporate a kegged programme.
I wouldn't say I was surprised at the level of interest the programme has generated. When we were talking about it initially it was exciting, though of course now it's routine for me. As far as evolving it, it's more about changing up the cocktails. I did experiment putting a Pisco Sour complete with egg white in a keg and it ended up working pretty well, though after a long period without agitation, it didn't get such a head on it. But for a couple of days close to making it from scratch. We don't have any plans to include egg in our programme right now and would need to consider that long and hard. I'm not the most reflective person but it does feel like we really accomplished something that I'm really proud of.