Llama del Rey at Llama Inn in New York City (image: Matt Taylor Gross)
In the drinking world, the keg carries with it a connotation of frat parties and cheap lagers—not exactly an image that screams “craft.” But don’t be so quick to dismiss the vessel. The keg is still king when it comes to convenience and keeping contents fresh—key factors to any high-volume cocktail bar. As such, a growing number of venues across the country are investing in its virtues, rolling the metal barrel out from behind the shadows, discovering unexpected value along the way.
Forever at the forefront of trends, Brooklyn was quick to tap into the keg-as-craft movement. It didn’t invent the cocktail on draft, but New York’s hippest borough birthed Yours Sincerely back in 2016, as the industry’s first outpost dedicated exclusively to the format. Here, in lieu of bottles, the backbar is lined with 27 handles (each one topped in a creepy porcelain doll head) dispensing batched drinks ranging from classic combinations to esoteric specialties.
In a neighborhood populated with dive bars, Yours Sincerely ingratiated itself with locals with an array of cocktails priced between $4 and $10 a pop. Economy of scale, it turns out, is a side benefit of producing drinks in large scale prior to the start of service. And the quality of the drink hardly has to suffer, so long as it’s a simple arrangement (three- to four-ingredient cocktails seem to work best) and proper care is taken to clean the lines that pump the liquid to the glass.
It’s not always as easy as it seems. A tasty drink out of the tap actually requires a fair amount of due diligence and even some basic understanding of physics. “We carbonate once briefly and release the air valve to displace the air in the headspace with CO2,” says Aaron Polsky, the bar manager at Harvard & Stone in L.A. To preserve the fruitiness in his kegged Paloma, he needs to add a laundry list of ingredients you won’t find at your local grocery store. “We use citric, malic and succinic acids, plus an organic makrut lime extract to emulate the lime profile while keeping the drink clear, stable and homogenous.”
Harvard & Stone
In other words, the whole process is craftier than most people give it credit for. Just because you’re not seeing it happen in front of you doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of precision at play. “Kegging allows us to use a blend of ingredients that would be otherwise time-consuming to build last minute, including our clear citrus” says Polsky. “In the case of the Paloma, we use grapefruit liqueur, hopped grapefruit bitters and Aperol to build a round, complex grapefruit profile.”
Polsky is careful to avoid drinks that require shaking, focusing on the cocktails that perform best at 32 to 33 degrees in temperature. “You can’t use fresh juices either without them settling unless they’ve been clarified.”
Nori Old Fashioned at Inko Nito
Even with all the caveats, beverage director Nathan Merriman sees nothing but upside. He built the entire bar program at downtown Los Angeles’ Inko Nito around the format. “It’s a high-energy restaurant, and cocktails on tap provide us a way of getting drinks to our guests efficiently,” he says of the Japanese eatery. “Once the recipes have been approved, we can have one [server] deliver the drinks for the entire 100-cover restaurant. On a busy Saturday night, that’s one person making drinks for more than 400 people.”
Like Polsky, Merriman wasn’t about to load up any combination into the cask. He works with cocktails showcasing finely infused ingredients—the sorts of flavors that might become more vibrant over, say, two to three days of mingling in the keg. The Nori Old Fashioned, for example, marries Suntory Whisky Toki with seaweed and Japanese brown sugar.
“There are lots of variants in batching cocktails and leaving them in kegs for periods of time including, oxidation, liquids splitting, fermenting and more,” says Merriman. “Before opening Inko Nito, we spent close to six months constantly testing cocktails in kegs to see how different ingredients would react over different periods of time.”
At Llama Inn in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg ’hood, Lynnette Marrero relies on the process to suss out new flavors from an old recipe. “Chicha is a staple in Peru, and every family has a unique recipe,” says the bar manager at the Peruvian hot spot. Her Llama del Rey cocktail was meant to evoke the South American fermented classic in a decidedly modern way.
Llama Del Rey at Llama Inn
“Chicha reminded me of a really good Sangria with warm spices,” says Marrero. “To bring the cocktail together, I wanted to use brandy, a traditional base for Sangria, but I decided to use pisco to amplify the grape notes. The drink is perfect on draft, because it’s a punch, or ponche, and it only gets better as it marries in the keg.”
A vessel long maligned as low-brow is earning its street cred, one cocktail bar at a time. As mixologists make peace with its once-overlooked potential, the format is now being used to express vibrant, complex flavors at accessible price points. But no different than any traditionally prepared mixer, the kegged variations require thoughtfulness and acuity of execution. Craft comes in many shapes and sizes. Drinkers, then, ought to always be ready for a few surprises on tap.