The Business Case for Serving Cocktails on Tap at Your Bar

Carrie Dennis | February 2, 2023, 11:00 PM CST

The Business Case for Serving Cocktails on Tap at Your Bar

The pendulum was bound to swing back. Even a few short years ago, when the cocktail revolution was still gaining speed, the idea seemed far-fetched that someone would drop $20 on a single Manhattan or on a concoction of egg whites, baking spices, and small-batch bourbon. Over time, though, the luxury of having a bartender — nah, a mixologist — dote over your drink became a perfectly normal move. Beer came from cans and taps; wine came from bottles; and cocktails came from a guy in a heavy apron who spanked rosemary theatrically and blow-torched marshmallows and pine cones.

But, so, what if — hear me out here — we took this all down about four notches. The prices, the wait times, the off-off-Broadway of it all. And what if instead of an endless constellation of elixirs, we as patrons and as service professionals fit a few go-to cocktails onto the draft list?

The on-tap cocktail was bound to have its moment, and while it isn’t by any measure a one-size-fits-all proposition, it may also have a place on your menu. Maybe you have a best-selling cocktail, and you want to optimize sales and speed by batching it and pushing it through a draft line you’re not using. Maybe you’re just curious about the trend. Drinkers seem to be into them, especially if they come faster and cheaper than the gin fizz we ordered, like, 20 minutes ago now.

“Batched cocktails can be just as delicious as made-to-order cocktails,” says Tana Rulkova, the VP of Marketing at PourMyBeer and PourMyBeverage. “I also love to go to speakeasies for a traditional bartender experience and would not have that any other way. It depends on what type of experience both the operator and patron are looking for.”

If draft cocktails do fit your establishment, and if you treat them with respect, they can make bank. They save on labor, for one: You can batch them during slow hours, and a bartender of any skill level can serve them. Pours will also be consistent, making liquor costs more predictable. Self-pour technology, like the systems installed by PourMyBeer, let guests pour their own drinks and may save you even more on labor. They’re also suitable for non-alcoholic cocktails.

The first question you’ll ask, naturally, is whether an on-tap cocktail goes beyond mere gimmick to a genuine feature of your drinks program. Trends or no, you’ll be most successful if you have a solid idea of what you hope to gain. You need to be able to sell enough of a specific drink to make batching worthwhile. And you do need draft lines, not to mention cooler space for the keg.

Speaking with a drink service expert can help you decide what you actually want to do, and what your establishment can handle. A beverage consultant can direct you to specific equipment, advise you on how to work with local technicians, or do a full set-up and training session with your staff. The path to a successful draft cocktail program depends on your circumstances. Bar and restaurant operators who do succeed with theirs find these are some of the benefits of the format.

Draft cocktails can be just as good as made-to-order cocktails 

Choosing your recipe is crucial. When in doubt, tried-and-true works great — think your margarita, your paloma, your Negroni, your Moscow Mule. The enjoyability of a draft cocktail versus its made-to-order counterpart often comes down to temperature. Draft cocktails are served from a refrigerator, which is 34 degrees fahrenheit, or beer temperature. That’s way too warm for a cocktail. But cocktails normally served at that temperature and put over ice generally do well.

“An Old Fashioned or Negroni is definitely not worse on tap,” says Mike Capoferri, the owner of a Los Angeles cocktail bar called Thunderbolt, and a consultant who for years has helped bars install systems and convert beer lines to accommodate draft cocktails. What does suffer? Carbonated drinks that someone hasn’t thought through. “In my four years of consulting, all anyone wanted was Aperol Spritz on tap,” he says. “I would try to talk bars out of it, because it’s hard to serve something that sweet and that carbonated on tap. It would just be an emulsion, and you’re never going to get good bubbles.”

You also can’t simply whip up a huge batch of normal margaritas and be good to go. Preserving the integrity of a cocktail at that quantity requires fine tuning and atypical ingredients. “How do you create a margarita base that’s not heavy with lots of sediment that wants to crash to the bottom of the keg and create inconsistency in pouring? And how do you preserve it naturally?” says Shane McKnight, whose Top Hat Provisions ingredients specializes in ingredients for batching cocktails, including for on tap. He answers his own query: “Use vitamin C, organic lime juice, a little citric acid, the right amount of agave nectar, a little bit of gum arabic — which adds suspension and mouthfeel — and a tiny bit of apple cider vinegar to create a stability in the pH.”

Draft cocktails deliver consistent quality 

This is a bonus for anyone obsessed with quality control. Every bartender who serves a draft cocktail will be serving your customers a uniform drink, meaning the same alcohol content, the same taste, and the same texture each time they visit your establishment.

The built-in features of the draft cocktail rig might, along the way, elevate drinks you otherwise wouldn’t bother to serve. In Capoferri’s words: “There’s an overarching sentiment from cocktail noobs that batching is bad, and oftentimes it is if you’re doing it the wrong way. But oftentimes it is necessary to serve something that maybe you can’t have any other way.” The only cocktail that Thunderbolt features on tap is the espresso martini, which Capoferri says tastes great at that refrigerated temperature. “We serve it on nitro, so it pours more like a Guinness, with that cream on top,” he says. “The only way you can do that is on tap.”

With that in mind, you should consider draft cocktails not as a replacement for a drink already on your menu, but as a way to imagine two or three signature on-tap cocktails that set you apart in the minds of your customers. Says McKnight: “Capture a couple of cocktail concepts that make it the thing that guests come for consistently. It’s the same every time, at the right cost.” Essentially, use your tap cocktails as a branding tactic to differentiate yourself from similar venues. Use them to lean into what makes your establishment unique. And because they’re quick, maybe think of them as your go-to cocktails to go.

Whatever you go with, be sure to match the draft apparatus to the character of the drink. Different installations, parts, kegs, connectors, and faucets will have different results on your speed, flavor, carbonation, and stability. Cocktails need to be stirred constantly to avoid sediment and lines cleaned on a regular basis. “It requires know-how about the equipment,” Capoferri says. “It takes some training. Rotating kegs, marking them as pressurized or not pressurized. It’s not hard, you just have to learn it, like you learn any other SOP in a bar.”

Draft cocktails free up your bartenders’ time 

Speeding up your service comes in handy when your bartender is slammed by a happy-hour rush or by kickball league night. The speed comes in even handier when you’re serving a ton of people a ton of drinks, like at a festival, music venue, or stadium. Or maybe you sell something by the pitcher and are pre-batching it anyway. A draft line makes a big difference here.

One notable exception: Draft cocktails won’t speed up very simple drinks. “We recommend steering away from the basic cocktails that utilize one liquor and, say, cola,” says William Metropulos, an accounts manager at PourMyBeer. “That cocktail can be produced quickly and doesn’t bring the wow or the margin a signature cocktail can.” 

But generally, if you’re used to slinging just a handful of bespoke cocktails, a tap can save you loads of time. In a traditional bar or restaurant setting — where bartenders pour beer and wine, crack bottles, and fashion hand-crafted cocktails — a round of espresso-tinis can consign one bartender to the espresso machine; Thunderbolt meanwhile conjures them with the yank of a handle. A thoughtful draft cocktail or two, poured in seconds, let bartenders focus on shaken and stirred cocktails, and close tickets quickly.

The way McKnight sees things, when you’re making bespoke cocktails “you’re head-down, you’re chasing down bottles across the bar, you turned around, you’re reaching down, you’re measuring — you’ve disconnected from the guest because you have to focus on what you’re doing,” he says. “In certain arenas, we want to watch that. That’s great. That excitement and that tension and that edginess, it’s part of their model. If that’s not part of their model, for us to watch those steps, if it’s creating a disconnection, then the guest feels alone.”

McKnight says having draft cocktails on draft lets him return to the guest, to connect, to talk about appetizers and to garnish the cocktail without chaos. “We’re just together,” he says. “That’s my favorite part.”

[Photo by Johann Trasch on Unsplash]

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