Are kegged cocktails a cheap gimmick or a bar savior?

Photo via Getty Images/Rimma_Bondarenko

Are kegged cocktails a cheap gimmick or a bar savior?

Cocktails + Spirits

Are kegged cocktails a cheap gimmick or a bar savior?

The contemporary craft cocktail movement assumes many shapes and sizes. An unwavering dedication to quality ingredients and full-flavored spirits is universal. But how any given bartender prepares these parts is an art as fluid as the liquid arriving in the glass. The idea of the bespoke drink — a mustachioed barman muddling a dozen components to order into some antique chalice — has become the subject of satire. It’s also wildly impractical.

As a sort of rebuke to that overly pretentious side of mixology, a new trend has emerged where drinks are cared for elegantly and efficiently without being too precious. The height of this philosophy finds its form in the kegged cocktail – coming soon to a craft bar near you.

Batched drinks are nothing new to the bar world. It’s when bartenders mix ingredients prior to service, maximizing speed of delivery during busy hours. Kegging takes this concept a step further by preserving the freshness of a large volume of pre-measured cocktail, charging it with effervescence and facilitating an easy serve — often out of the same pouring gun restaurants typically used for soda.

At Inko Nito, a high-capacity robatayaki in downtown Los Angeles, drinks practically fly out of from the bar during frenetic dinner hours. Orders are uploaded into the ether, via tablet, and arrive tableside often within 2 to 3 minutes. This laser-like execution is the result of the restaurant’s kegged cocktail program. “We have a restaurant where everything can happen pretty quick,” explains beverage director Nathan Merriman. “We want to be able to make sure those drinks are in our guests’ hands fast.”

Once recipes are approved, a selection of six separate cocktails are married in cold storage the evening prior to being served. “This allows us ample time for the keg to rest and get the best carbonation results without any issues with the ingredients we use inside the kegs. The kegs stay refrigerated the whole time,” Merriman explains.

The drink system has become an instant hit in the four-month-old eatery, where a watermelon spritz, grapefruit-and-tequila-laced Palomita, and nori-infused Old Fashioned are now permanent menu fixtures. “We can have one team member deliver the drinks for the 100 cover restaurant for any given service,” Merriman says. “On a busy Saturday night that is one person making drinks for over 400 people.” Those sorts of numbers are unheard of in a live bar, where drinks are made to order.

No strangers to efficiency, the Japanese have long embraced machination to deliver highballs at a high pace. The classic combination of whisky and soda on the rocks (with a twist of citrus zest) is a staple item at the country’s many informal drinking dens, known as izakayas. Often in urban settings, these bars are dense, loud and chaotic. In the 1990s, Suntory — Japan’s largest whisky producer — restored order with the implementation of a highball machine. Now the device is making its way across the ocean.

Chicago has been an early adopter of the technology. At Prairie School, Toki Japanese whisky is blended with soda water and citrus through refrigerated lines, arriving together on a dedicated draft line. The craft cocktail bar serves the drink in specialty ceramic mugs. Across town, Longman & Eagle is using the same setup to mix-in American whiskey — Jim Beam bourbon, to be exact. The machine supercharges the liquid to a level of carbonation 1.5 times that of Champagne, infusing it with a crisp, refreshing body.

In Washington D.C., Bar Charley has worked kegging into the tiki section of the menu. The increasingly popular Polynesian-styled drinks are infamous for their complex arrangement of ingredients. By streamlining the assembly in a house Mai Tai, as well as in their bourbon-based Suffering Bastard, patrons are able to access advanced tropical flavors without having to wait. And better yet, they don’t seem to surrender any flavor in the process, as the components tend to benefit from batching. “I actually think they taste better out of the gun,” notes bar regular, Mike McGrath.

Despite all this demonstrable upside, kegging actually remains a controversial practice in the industry. Working a trade steeped in traditionalism, many bartenders are resistant to what they see as modern gimmicks. Their trepidation is warranted. “There are lots of variants in batching cocktails and leaving them in kegs for periods of time, including oxidization, liquids splitting, fermenting and more,” warns Merriman. Indeed, if bar programs don’t put in their due diligence, inferior drinks will result.

There’s also the element of choice, which might get trampled along the way. If the specific drink you want isn’t offered out of the keg, will you find yourself pressured into ordering something you didn’t necessarily want? Theoretically this shouldn’t be the case, as virtually every bar offering drinks in this format also maintains a to-order operation. For now.

In the technological age, we sacrifice quite a bit of ourselves upon the altar of convenience. To most contemporary drinkers, a more streamlined drink menu is a small price to pay for efficiency.

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