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The Draft Cocktail Divide

With a mix of avid supporters and vocal detractors, the practice of putting cocktails on tap is one of the bar world’s most controversial.

Toby Cecchini doesn’t mince words when asked about the sudden ubiquity of cocktails served on tap. “I think draft cocktails are shite.” He’s neither alone nor unchallenged.

Devotees of the technique, which involves creating shelf-stable batches of a given drink—the Gin and Tonic, for example—to be carbonated and dispensed via sometimes as many as a dozen tap lines, cite efficiency, sustainability and, in certain instances, the capability to make a better drink as the primary reasons to implement the practice. “Draft cocktails have the ability to significantly reduce cost and waste due to not having to use juice, when properly made,” says bartender Aaron Polsky, most recently of Los Angeles’s Harvard & Stone. “By using extracts, acids and infusions, one can make a stable keg that has effectively an infinite shelf life.”

In other words, advances in cocktail-making techniques such as clarification (which strips juice of particles that interfere with carbonation), infusions (which add flavor without adding particles) and acid solutions (which mimic the taste of fresh citrus) have enabled bartenders to create large-format, shelf-stable simulacra of popular cocktails that can be served in mere seconds.

The advantages of this practice are far-reaching and easy to side with. The ability to pull a cocktail the way one pulls a pint of beer takes the potential for human error out of the equation almost entirely. “The ease of service obviates training, which allows craft cocktails to be served anywhere there are draft lines,” explains Polsky. It also enables bartenders in high-volume settings to meet the demands of their customers in a timely fashion. “Consistency and timing are the biggest things for us,” says Stephanie Andrews, bar manager at Chicago’s Billy Sunday and Charlotte, North Carolina’s Spindle Bar, both of which serve a selection of cocktails on tap. “In such a high-volume craft cocktail setting, you shouldn’t be waiting 10 to 15 minutes for a drink,” she says. In theory, a bar manager could prep an entire night’s worth of cocktails before the bar opens its doors for service, and for the rest of the evening, bartenders would simply pull a lever to dispense consistent cocktails for their guests.

But from my position on the other side of the bar, it’s not so easy to jump on the tap train. With few exceptions—the Aperol Spritz at Bar Pisellino in New York, and the Margarita at Half Step in Austin come to mind—draft cocktails rank at the very bottom of my recent drinking experiences at dozens of bars across the country. Too often they are over- or under-diluted, or otherwise off balance (straw-testing is no solution here; if one draft cocktail pulled from a keg of nearly 200 drinks is bad, the whole batch is bad). “I think [draft cocktails] only exist for the ease of bar managers and bartenders,” says Cecchini. “My biggest problem with them is that guests generally like to see a bartender making up their drink fresh, not pulling it from a spigot.”

In many ways, however, draft cocktails feel like an obvious extension of our current cocktail moment; a natural next step for an industry in which so much of a drink’s manipulation—acid-adjusted citrus, force carbonation, dilution—takes place behind the scenes, out of view from the drinker. And while this shift of attention away from the bartender and onto the customer experience is a welcome development, I can’t help but wonder if the widespread adoption of draft cocktails is stripping the craft cocktail experience of, well, craft.

Theatricality has always been integral to bartending—ever since the late 19th century, when Jerry Thomas first threw flaming ribbons of whiskey between two tins to create his Blue Blazer. It was performance, too, that enabled the early cocktail revivalists—Dale DeGroff, Sasha Petraske, Audrey Saunders—to lift mixed drinks out of the murky depths of the 1980s. The drinking public, which had grown used to seeing their cocktails constructed from artificial sour mix and juice from concentrate had to be shown, by a legion of enlightened bartenders, what fresh ingredients and proper technique could produce. To hide all of this behind a bar tap feels like a swift reversal of what so many bartenders worked so hard to establish. After all, isn’t shelf-stable citrus the very definition of sour mix?

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