Twenty-seven years ago, Tom Cruise starred in "Cocktail" which led to several moviegoers breaking glassing while attempting to recreate those performances flashy bartenders — like Cruise's character — portrayed in the 1980s. The bar scene's not the same anymore, as no one wants to see those crazy hijinks. That's but one reason kegged cocktails continue to appear on more drink menus.
For the uninitiated, guests won't see their favorite bartender shaking up kegged cocktails. These drinks are premixed and balanced. They flow from taps, just like beer, and stored in kegs. Some places even bottle them. The Tippling Bros. were among the first to show Chicago the wonders of an innovative kegged cocktail program, starting out in 2012 with Tavernita which occupied the corner of Erie and Ontario streets. Like many great drinking ideas, Spain served as an inspiration, where vermouth on tap isn't a rarity.
"It's a beautiful tradition they had, and we wanted our own original thing," Tad Carducci said. "We wanted a tradition of our own, to kind of turn it on its ear and make it our own."
Carducci serves as one half of the Tipplings, along with Paul Tanguay. They've forged a company around Mexican-influenced drinks, and even authored a book on cocktails. They already had vermouth on tap, which meant a cocktail was already flowing through the lines, so why not more? The Tipplings worked with draft line experts and made sure their science was correct. Plenty of ingredients can gum up traditional draft lines meant for beer, like citrus fruits. Egg whites and aged spirits won't work. Whisky and Coke does.
Overall, these drinks are conversation starters, and also ways to serve a large venue quickly. Bartender schools are showing more interest in that application. It's a time saver that allows staff to spend more time making guests happy, and perhaps even more time for customized bespoke cocktails.
"If you're at a busy cocktail bar where the might be one particular house cocktail that just flied out the door and sold all day and every day, that's a great candidate to be in a keg," Carducci said.
The most successful programs will have some sort of focus with discipline. Carducci recalled the halcyon days at Tavernita. It became too much of a "juggernaut" to maintain with almost 20 offerings, including housemade sodas.
The Tipplings blazed the way for this trend that's taken off in Chicago. Some places — such as Billy Sunday and Slippery Slope — bottle their cocktails. The bottled cocktail can come handy on the dance floor. It's easier to hold a bottle than a martini glass. Rec Room is one such place, that's the River North space underneath Henry's on Hubbard Street. DMK Restaurants jumped on the kegged bandwagon, and began serving batched cocktails about two years ago.
A bar really needs to commit to the concept, said Scott Koehl, head bartender at DMK. The equipment, time and people required for a successful beverage program may make offering the drinks prohibitive. But if the bar already has a strong draft beer program, much of that infrastructure — the carbon dioxide tanks, etc. — are already there.
"It's not something you can force, it's not something you can throw in [on the menu] every once in a while," Koehl said.
Taking another page from the the surging popularity of craft beer, Koehl sees a time where home brewers begin focusing on cocktails. The cost of equipment continues to decrease, and that benefits business owners and home consumers. He's not talking about the same technique used by the SodaStream users, as the machines aren't made for alcoholic beverages and don't accomplish total bubble gratification.
"It makes the water semi carbonated, it's half carbonation," Koehl explained. "It's hard to get that throat-ripping carbonation that way."
However, under the watchful eyes of a committed staff armed with the right equipment, bottled drinks are great ways to keep drinks fresh, especially when the beverage contains fresh ingredients, like fruit and herbs.
Carducci, ever curious, has attempted to use a SodaStream but not with the best results. For now, either leave the carbonation to the pros, or wait until better equipment is available: "I have sent bottles careening across the room."