Draft cocktails are the cilantro of the drinks industry: You either love ‘em or hate ‘em.
The concept behind cocktails on tap is much-discussed. That debate is usually over the assumed loss of quality that accompanies pre-batched drinks or the lack of connection between a bartender and customer when shaking and stirring are replaced with the flip of a tap.
But what about the benefits? They include faster service, more consistent cocktails and bigger profits. Pre-batching cocktails allows bartenders to serve multiple drinks in a fraction of the time it would take to shake and garnish an individual glass. It makes the bartender’s job easier and gets cocktails into your hands mere seconds after you order. Plus, when cocktails are dispensed like beer, you can try a sample of your selection before you commit.
As you might expect, spirit-forward classics like the Manhattan and Negroni are easily tappable, and plenty of notable cocktail bars have caught on to the keg. Today, you’ll find everything from scratch-made tonics to tiki drinks gushing from spouts all over the country. Tell your craft beer to make way: these draft cocktails are staging a tap takeover.
Craving old-school soda fountain charm? There’s no shortage of the stuff at Polite Provisions’ retro, apothecary-themed bar. With house-made sodas and tonics already flowing from the ample taps, draft cocktails were a natural extension of the theme. In addition to the tapped Gin & Tonic and Paloma, you’ll find original cocktails like the Mr. Brownstone, made with Irish whiskey, bitters and housemade cinnamon soda or the single-malt-Scotch–based Full Windsor with apple brandy, sweet vermouth and Bénédictine.
Tonic is king of the taps at this Logan Square cocktail bar. The menu includes four house-made tonics, each meticulously designed to pair with a specific spirit in a tapped cocktail. The most familiar combination? The Kent, which pairs navy strength gin with a tonic bearing notes of cinchona bark, lemongrass, allspice and citrus. If you’re serious about exploring the bitter side, take on the more unusual tapped tonics. Try the Octli, made with blanco tequila and a sweet woodruff, wormwood, safflower and cedar berry tonic or the Hart, featuring Demerara rum paired with a goji berry, wild cherry bark and gentian root tonic.
Chef Wylie Dufresne is known for his boundary-breaking cuisine, and his restaurant’s cocktail program follows suit. When some of the menu’s drinks proved more popular than others, it made sense to start offering them on tap to save time. Two of Alder’s most-ordered cocktails are now served from the spout, allowing customers to enjoy their drinks in a fraction of the time it would take to shake by hand. Look for Dr. Dave’s ‘Scrip Pad, a heady glass of rye whiskey, amaro, yuzu juice and smoked maple syrup and the Suffering Fools, made with bourbon, juniper, ginger and honey.
Long live tiki taps. At Bar Charley, a full-throttle tiki cocktail can be poured and served in seconds, complete with kitschy ceramic mug. When it comes to tiki, the benefits of a draft system are clear. Most tiki drinks call for a laundry list of spirits and syrups and take considerable bartending effort to create. Pre-batching and tapping those cocktails is a clever solution—one that benefits both the bartender and customer. Bar Charley’s tapped cocktails are just $7.95 and include the Molokai Mule, made with light and dark rum, brandy, orgeat, orange juice and bitters and the Suffering Bastard, comprising gin, bourbon, housemade ginger beer, lime and bitters.
Wonderland’s Ramble Cup, Green Velvet and Hitchhike cocktails Image: Scott Walker
For those who question the quality of draft cocktails, look closer. Kegs require a great deal of maintenance, and pre-batching a cocktail in one demands careful measurement. Understanding how ingredients will age and react in a keg is a science, not to mention creating cocktail recipes that won’t clog the line. Wonderland has managed to produce a trio of draft cocktails featuring fresh, seemingly tap-tricky ingredients: The Green Velvet, a grassy glass of vodka, basil, grapefruit juice and Green Chartreuse; The Ramble Cup, made with Pimm’s, cucumber-infused gin, raspberry vinegar and herbs; and the Hitchhike, made with bourbon, smoked Earl Grey, pickled peaches, ginger and mint.
Draft meets discotheque at this L.A. club. Developed by the duo who opened New York’s Death + Co, Honeycut’s draft cocktail offerings cater to guests who come to dance. Six cocktails and five house-made sodas line the taps, which can be mixed with the liquor of your choice. These well-chilled, lower-alcohol “tap coolers” are pre-batched so they can be dispensed in a flash between sweaty spins on the dance floor. Many feature clarified juices and house-made infusions—proof that considerable pre-production time is devoted to these quickly quaffed glasses. Try crisp carbonated options like the Kiki Fantana, made with gin, sherry, vermouth and strawberry cream soda or load up the club’s specialty “Backpack Party”—literally a backpack filled to the brim with booze—to take your tap on the go.
The brainchild of beverage consultants the Tippling Brothers, Tippling Hall prides itself on its well-executed kegged cocktails. You’ll find them on the first page of the sprawling bar menu, as they’re essential to serving the massive industrial space and guarantee consistent drinks all night long. Five inventive glasses fill the regular taps, including the Alice Fay with vodka, pecan-brown sugar syrup and lager beer and Misty in the Mountains, a smoky blend of mezcal, pineapple, beets, ginger and honey. Ready to turn it up to 11? Seek out the specialty Spinal “Tap”: the Derek Smalls, featuring Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, cucumber, mint, lime and grapefruit bitters.