Behind the Bar

Draft Cocktail Bars: More than Just an Instant Drink

A cocktail topped with a pineapple on a toothpick.
At Donna in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, three cocktails are available on draft, including the carbonated Americano (pictured above). Photo by Alicia Kennedy.

How do you combine the speed of a dive bar with the precision of a cocktail bar? For a lot of new spots, the answer is to put cocktails on tap.

The idea been steadily gaining popularity for a few years now. In 2013, Esquire brought a lot of attention to this drink genre, asking whether it was the “the year of the kegged cocktail” (they conclude that the drinks still had a ways to go quality-wise, which now seems prescient). Bartenders grumbled that it took away from the overall experience of the craft, and the notion that only very spirit-forward cocktails like Negronis or Manhattans should be available on tap kept them from being too exciting. But the new wave of draft drinks is proving they’re as capable of nuance as a cocktail that costs twice as much and takes three times as long to make.

On New Year’s Eve of this year, Yours Sincerely opened in Bushwick, Brooklyn, becoming perhaps one of the first draft-only cocktail bars. It’s the brainchild of Darren Grenia, who’s also partner in the restaurant next door, Dear Bushwick, where he developed a more classic bar program. “Dear Bushwick has been open for three years and we found out what the neighborhood wants,” he tells me. “A lot of people don’t care about craft cocktails in Bushwick.”

Yours Sincerely has 31 total taps, and 20 of those taps serve cocktails. They think of their concept as a cocktail laboratory, and they go so far as to serve drinks in beakers (which are also, he told me, very cheap to buy in bulk). They have beer and wine on tap, too, and you can design your own drink from a combination of spirits and house-made sodas.

“The true objective was to bridge the gap between a cocktail bar and a dive bar,” says Grenia. “The idea for the program was the idea that you can get whatever you get at a dive bar but it’s made better; there’s a craft and a science behind it. You can also get the custom craft cocktails that you’d get at a cocktail bar, the only difference is that it’s all done behind the scenes and it takes a quarter of the time — faster than a dive bar.”

One thing that will bring in any skeptic is the price point: Every cocktail is $8. For $4, you can do one of their three shots on tap, which are more like cocktails themselves. The Chaos Theory shot, for example, is chicory–infused bourbon, Jamaican jerk–infused Owney’s Rum, and molasses.

Thus far, their most popular cocktail is called Transmit the Box: chipotle-infused El Peleton de la Muerte mezcal, Aperol, agave, and chocolate. Tasting it, you would forget that it wasn’t made in front of you.

But it’s neither easy nor cheap to start a bar like this. They’ve invested in special cocktail kegs that stir the drinks. “It injects the gas in a different way and it’s ideal for carbonation and good for the nitrogen pour, because it keeps the cocktail in constant motion,” he explains. They measure each batch down to the 0.1 gram and make sure everything is extremely fine-strained so as not to cause clogging in the line. “With carbonated cocktails, there can’t be pulp, because it creates nucleation spots where CO2 can escape and you lose carbonation.”

Grenia assures that what goes on behind the scenes at Yours Sincerely requires the same amount of care as what you’d witness at a craft cocktail bar. “It’s a laboratory downstairs, so they’re kind of like cocktail chefs,” he says. “When the bar’s open and we’re pulling the taps, it’s like we’re serving dinner. We’ve been downstairs all day cooking and now here’s what we’ve made.”

For Regina Myers Maganzini, who owns PDQ in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn with her husband, the inspiration for their three cocktail taps was simply speed. (The bar’s name stands for Pretty Damn Quick.) “We’re a very neighborhood spot, so a lot of people come before heading home to the babysitter or going to a dinner reservation, so it’s really been well received,” she notes. “At first, people are a little confused or hesitant, but when they come, they’re like ‘Tap #2 is my jam.’” Their three taps are spirit-forward and you can choose to drink them “tall and bubbly” or “short and strong,” each mixed after pouring depending on your selection. Again, the price is much lower than a craft cocktail, going for $8 or $10.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at cocktail bar Donna, they also offer three cocktails on tap. “We used to have six beers and then three of them would sort of languish, so we thought why not take three of them and go in this direction,” beverage director Jeremy Oertel tells me. They’re currently serving Americanos, a milk punch, and a Paloma. “The thing I thought was interesting was to take drinks like a gin and tonic, or an Aperol spritz, or an Americano — drinks that are topped with soda water so part of it isn’t carbonated and one part is,” he says. “Usually what happens is they go flat quite quickly, so one thing I thought would be interesting is to carbonate the whole thing, that way you can carbonate the whole batch, so the bubbles are more present.” The result is a fun, boozy soda that goes for $11 — a few bucks cheaper than their $13 or $14 house cocktails.

The more bartenders experiment with kegged cocktails, the more innovation happens behind the scenes to improve them, and their lower cost and higher speed only increase accessibility to craft cocktails for a wider audience. Though the year of kegged cocktails has perhaps come and gone, their continued evolution is definitely something to watch — and drink.

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