It takes a lot to stand out in the drinks crowd these days, especially if high-volume service is important to the mix.
When Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay, who consult as the New York-based Tippling Bros., were asked to develop the beverage program at Chicago’s Tavernita, they took a decidedly unique approach, merging quality and efficiency by putting as many of the beverages as feasible on tap.
Draft beer systems have been around since, well, beer, and in the past few years, as wine producers have begun to match technology with a willing market, a number of increasingly respectable wines have been packaged in kegs. Even spirits have found their way into draft systems. But quality cocktails? Blasphemy. Or worse, impossible to achieve.
Kegging is more controversial in the cocktail world than it is among wine sellers, although there are still plenty of people who mourn the loss of a certain romance associated with uncorking a bottle tableside. But Carducci said that while there may be arguments about how well cocktails survive on tap, the drinks taste great.
Informed by their experience opening the Chicago Mercadito — which like Tavernita is owned by eight-unit Mercadito Hospitality, in which the Tippling Bros. are partners — Carducci and Tanguay knew Tavernita would be busy out of the gates and wanted to be able to offer the best drinks in a timely fashion. They wrestled with the draft concept for months before taking the leap, concerned not only with the intricacies but also with its reception by consumers and others in the industry.
“But we realized when we started putting the whole package together with the technology and equipment that we could pull it off,” Carducci said.
“Efficiency of service and volume are the most obvious reasons to do this and were huge factors,” he said. “But Paul and I are always trying to push the envelope to a certain degree, not for the sake of pushing, but trying to make our jobs easier while maintaining the integrity of what we and a huge number of other people have been trying to achieve in this platinum age of cocktails.”
There has been a bit of pushback within the cocktail world and among consumers who don’t want the entertaining but lengthy ritual of handcrafted drink preparation to disappear. However, a draft system allows for integrity, consistency and quality in the cocktail arena, where making perfect drinks both fast and frequently can be a challenge.
Carducci and Tanguay went well beyond drinks made entirely with alcohol. Test runs of small kegs of margaritas at Mercadito proved that citrusy drinks could hold up for long stretches. Contemporary bartenders are taught that a juiced lime starts to break down in a few hours, but Carducci said freshness is retained if the drinks are kept under the right gas mix.
Tavernita’s taps contain a number of fully conceived cocktails made with citrus juices, bitters and other high-acid components that today’s mixological Bible unequivocally states break down too quickly to be batched and served properly over a long period. But like the wines and beers at Tavernita, the 10 cocktails on draft are kept under inert gas in an expensive, customized system that uses various gauges and grades of stainless steel and surgical tubing to maintain freshness, Carducci said.
“We hand-built the entire process, from the heads to the kegs and lines. Anytime you’re working with anything other than beer, it requires different equipment due to a number of factors,” including the higher alcohol level, acidity and volatility of the ingredients, he noted.
Cocktail freshness wasn’t the only issue for the drinks-on-tap program. Finding a sufficient number of wines took plenty of searching, arm twisting and brokering. More producers have come on board as the wine list expands, and Carducci expects a landslide of wines to be available in large formats like kegs in the near future. Tavernita currently offers eight whites, eight reds and a rosé on tap. The wines, like the cocktails, have been widely accepted by customers.
That sort of program takes plenty of attention. The kegs and even the gas mixes are maintained in-house by bar manager and “batchologist” Scott Huth, which Carducci said is essential to the program’s success.
The Tippling Bros. made the program even more challenging by also creating a line of four sodas: cola, Valencia orange, white grape and ginger chile. The sodas are kept in 30-liter kegs and “are shockingly popular,” Carducci said.
“People eat it up to know that they’re drinking soda from the source made in our basement and pushed up through our lines,” he added.
The flavor profiles are consciously different from what’s commercially available — the Valencia-orange soda has some pleasing bitterness, and the white grape is barely sweet. While mixing with alcohol wasn’t a primary idea behind the program, Carducci said customers are ordering a significant number of soda highballs. The margins aren’t the same as those available from outside soda suppliers, but it’s still a profitable business, he said.
It’s the draft cocktails that have made the biggest mark, however. Tavernita still serves a handful of à la minute cocktails, but to keep up with the demand for their sangría and Booty Collins, the two top-selling draft drinks, staff needed to prepare 80-liter to 100-liter batches to get through sweltering Chicago summer weekend days.
Carducci recommended expanding into wine as a first step for any operators interested in growing their keg programs. A high-volume restaurant can more easily run wine through a standard draft system with the correct tweaks, and the savings in waste and environmental value alone may be enticement enough. For cocktails, he suggested starting with small 3- to 5-gallon kegs to see if a market for them exists.
Small bore or full out, draft systems are an intriguing way to speed service in high-volume restaurants, and the chances are good, given the response at Tavernita, that the restaurant won’t own the most ambitious such program for very long.
But it might be remembered as the concept that ushered in a new era of efficient and profitable beverage service.
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