Monday, 28 November 2016 10:54

Consistency on Tap: The rise of draft cocktails

Written by  Troy Reimink
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Bartender Courtney Beltran pouring a draft Aquavit Cucumber Tonic at Long Road Distillers Bartender Courtney Beltran pouring a draft Aquavit Cucumber Tonic at Long Road Distillers Katy Batdorff

Mixed drinks from a tap. The very idea seems almost … sacrilegious, somehow, doesn’t it?

But with craft distilleries putting a deeper footprint in West Michigan’s food and beverage economy, spirit-makers are embracing yet another big-city trend — the draft cocktail. While the idea is relatively new, establishments in the area have found undeniable upsides to the format.

“Draft cocktails are useful for consistency of product, speed of service and quality of product,” said Daniel Lovig, general manager at Long Road Distillers.

He emphatically dismisses the suggestion that, conceptually, a cocktail poured from a keg violates something intrinsic to the bar experience — in which the wizened bartender uses the cocktail glass as a canvas, and the step-by-step drink-making performance is part of what the customer is buying.

“Creativity is not nearly as important as proportions and execution,” Lovig said. “The strength of a bar comes through execution. Creativity is only wonderful when you have those standards. The draft cocktail relieves the pressure of service from the bartenders. ”

Another advantage is portability. Bringing a kegged cocktail to an outside event is easier than lugging around cocktail ingredients. It also mutually benefits the bar’s bottom line and the patron’s wallet, Lovig explained. If a bartender can prepare a drink in a few seconds, the business can do more volume on a busy night, which scales the price downward.

A Long Road draft gin and tonic, for example, is $4 during happy hour and $6 regularly — competitive prices even against bars that serve well liquor with carbonated mixers out of a soda gun. 

“I want bartending to be more about math than flair,” Lovig said.

Long Road also offers a draft adult (vodka) soda and an Aquavit cucumber tonic in its tasting room. Draft options were part of the plan when Long Road’s owners, Kyle Van Strien and Jon O’Connor, began mapping out their distillery, which opened in May 2015. Its upstairs event space, the Rickhouse, has on tap a Polish Falcon, which is Long Road’s spin on the Moscow Mule and has proved exceptionally popular.

Similarly, the draft Moscow Mule — conspicuous in its chilled copper mug — quickly has become the top-selling drink at Gray Skies Distillery, which opened in March in Grand Rapids’ North Monroe business district. Its draft cocktail menu — which outsells conventional cocktails two-to-one — also includes a Gin Gin Mule, a Dark ‘N’ Stormy, a rum-coconut-pineapple concoction and an Apple Bottom cider-rum cocktail. 

“A lot of craft scenes in bigger cities, like Chicago and Denver, were starting to experiment with this, so we wanted to see how it would fit here in Grand Rapids,” said Brandon Voorhees, co-owner of Gray Skies. “People enjoy the concept, but more importantly people enjoy the consistency of it.”

One of the biggest challenges in hand-making a cocktail, Voorhees and Lovig agreed, is maintaining a uniform level of carbonation, which can get lost when a carbonated mixer is poured over ice. Drawing the already proportioned drink from a tap eliminates this variable.

“When you’re measuring in a quarter ounce of this, a half ounce of that, and an ounce of this, when things get busy around here, it takes a lot of time to get that perfect every single time,” Voorhees said. “In this case, we pull a tap handle, and you get that same cocktail day after day and weekend after weekend.”

The concept is also catching on further west, said Trevor Doublestein, who opened Our Brewing Co. in downtown Holland in 2012 and has been serving draft cocktails since this spring. Like most establishments, its draft offerings are twists on classics rather than experiments; Our Brewing currently offers a rum Manhattan and a gin and tonic.

“Our bartenders don’t lose a step while pouring all the varieties that we offer by having to stop and shake or mix a cocktail,” Doublestein said. “It also makes it impossible to over or under-pour the booze.”

And as much as some customers might miss the edifying personal touch of a handmade cocktail, the unexpected sight of one coming from a tap is its own novelty, Doublestein said.

“I do think pulling a cocktail on draft has an awe factor right now because most people are still unaware that it is a thing.” 

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