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Craft Without The Wait: How Austin Bars Embrace Draft Cocktails

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Austin bartenders talk the benefits, and challenges, of embracing new booze technology.

The Hitchhike and Uptown/Top Ranking at Wonderland
The Hitchhike and Uptown/Top Ranking at Wonderland
All Photos: Melody Fury/EATX

Craft cocktail bars have made drinking into an occasion: the perfect glassware, the high-end spirits, the historic recipes transform the experience of knocking one back. Unfortunately, all too often that fancy pants cocktail costs $14 and takes twenty minutes to make. Enter the draft cocktail: cheaper to make and much faster to pour, it promises craft excellence without the fuss. In Austin, more bartenders are batching cocktails by the keg to offer cheaper and quicker drink specials, without compromising the quality.

While draft cocktails seem novel, they're not necessarily new to the beverage world.  "There are notes of bartenders pumping cocktails up from kegs going back to the late 1890's and possibly earlier", explained veteran beverage consultant, Jason Stevens.  He designed the draft cocktails for Bar Congress/ Second Bar + Kitchen, Wonderland on East 6th, and Sawyer & Co. Stevens is known for his deep knowledge of cocktail lore and his own high-end creations at Bar Congress, but the promise of bringing craft cocktails to a much larger audience has become a passion.

The Green River at Second Bar + Kitchen

The Green River at Second Bar + Kitchen. [Photo: Melody Fury]

The most compelling reason to serve cocktails on draft is speed. Instead of making each cocktail by hand, all the bartenders have to do is pour one from the tap. However, that time saved during service is extended during prep time.  "Kegs are not ‘set it and forget it' - there are many factors involved in each keg throughout its life," Stevens explained. That said, every cocktail will also be incredibly consistent. "The precise measurements, subtle seasoning, and exact dilution that kegging cocktails allows helps ensure consistent drinks."

The novelty factor captures customers too. Chris Bostick of Half Step explained, "it is still nice to see when a guest's curiosity is piqued when you offer them a cocktail on tap.  People just don't expect that."  Matthew Gutierrez at Liberty Tavern at the Downtown Hilton agrees.  "Being a bar mostly focused on tapped beers, this gives the additional option for the cocktail drinkers from the handles as well."

Ginger Mezcal Paloma and Margarita at Half Step. [Photo: Melody Fury]

For Allison Green at Blackbird and Henry, cost effectiveness is an incentive for the house and the guests "I am typically able to offer draft cocktails at a slightly lower price than other drinks because I can buy in bulk," she says. The ability to batch also cuts costs According to Stevens, "this more precise control means less waste in making the drinks, which in turn means cheaper drinks for our guests."

The mechanics of the process itself, however, are not without headaches. For Jeff Hammet at Swift's Attic, changing kegs at peak hours can be trying. "You always expect it to pour, but when you run out, often at 8pm on a Saturday night, it can be difficult to replenish," he explained.  Most bartenders agree that pulpy ingredients such as citrus juice can clog up the pipes and be a headache to work with.  At Pleasant Storage Room, they squeeze the key limes directly into the glass before topping it from the tap to avoid that problem.  Other bars simply strain, strain, and re-strain, such as Odd Duck for their Moscow Mule. Plus there's a million new technical issues to master, from figuring out which gas or gas blend to use, to understanding how flavor changes over time in a keg. Cocktail ingredients could react differently under pressure, and bartenders need to balance out the different PH levels for citrusy drinks.

The Hurricane, Pimm's Cup, and Louisiana Fix at Sawyer & Co. [Photo: Melody Fury]

The consensus is that classic, spirit forward drinks lend best to this method.  Blackbird and Henry serves up a Gin & Tonic and the Sazerac. "The reason I did the Sazerac is a no brainer... it's an all-spirit cocktail.  It's all just taking from what our great-great -grandparents are drinking and expanding on it." Chris Bostick sticks to old faithfuls, the Margarita and Paloma. "Something gets lost when you try and overload on the flavors. In the end you are relying on carbon dioxide, nitrogen or a combination of both to keep the cocktail incorporated and flowing...there's no shaking or stirring going on."

With all the benefits that draft cocktails can add, it can also subtract from human interaction if bartenders aren't careful.  Sometimes, efficiency can't replace the small talk that comes with the stirring and shaking.  "I would never say that every bar needs a keg system," Steven says. "Draft cocktails in no way replace traditional bartending, or the joy given and received when a drink is made specifically for you."

— Melody Fury

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