When Dave Purcell took over as beverage director for two Los Angeles-area restaurants, he needed to develop different programs that catered to varied and demanding customers. He also didn't want to overload his staff, but had to mind the bottom line.
He turned to draft cocktails, which hit all the notes. “Every single item from the bar needs to take the same amount of time,” Purcell says of The Waterfront Venice and Winston House. “We were looking at like $6 per second, so it didn't matter if we were pouring beer, wine or cocktails. It all needed to be equally fast.”
At The Waterfront, a busy beach bar on the Venice boardwalk that serves up to 2,500 guests during prime sunset hours, drinks must be efficient and consistent from concept to customer. Serving draft cocktails along with other tap beverages made sense from an economical and operational standpoint – especially when there's a labor crunch.
With the many logistics to consider for a strong draft cocktail program, there's a learning curve. But done well, it can be a money-generator for venues of any volume. A checklist for getting it right:
1. Evaluate space and equipment
Space is required for prep, storing the cocktail kegs and the dispensing equipment. Purcell dedicated a temperature-controlled fridge for Waterfront's cocktail program. It houses the kegs, 20-liter containers for base mixes prepped and ready for when a keg needs to be replaced, and other ingredients.
2. Staff needs training
At least one person, if not an entire bar team, should know how to batch the cocktails, put them in the kegs and hook up the CO2 or nitrogen.
“Training is still essential,” says Tako Chang, brand marketing and communications manager at Double Chicken Please in New York City, which offers one of the most highly regarded bar programs in the country. Seasonally driven, its “taptails” offers 10 unique creations.
“It's not just pulling a tap handle. It's how many ice cubes, the way you pour a drink, what order to use extra ingredients. Plus, you need to know how to serve a packed room efficiently.”
3. Keep it clean
Regular tap line cleaning and maintenance is a must; just make sure service companies and suppliers are reliable. Always have a backup plan.
4. Know how to troubleshoot
“Learn how to fix and clean lines and pipes, how to read the gas meters; if the CO2 is gone, make sure everyone knows who to call,” Chang says. “That can make or break any busy night.”
5. Understand the ingredients
Know how spirits interact with sugar, mixers and other ingredients and how they'll pour out of a tap. Batched cocktails differ from individually crafted ones. Avoid using pulp-heavy citrus or other fruit that could clog the tap lines. Egg whites or dairy aren't good for consistency.
6. Treat it right
If a batched cocktail separates in a keg, it needs to be shaken during a shift. A draft cocktail served over ice dilutes differently than one made by hand, so that water needs to be compensated for in a recipe.
7. Substituting works
Purcell doesn't use fresh citrus for Waterfront margaritas, because the quantity of lime juice is too great. It also requires labor to squeeze and has a shorter shelf life, which can lead to more waste. The workaround: Perricone juice, a lime acid solution, and calamansi for textural elements and flavor.
8. Experiment, but factor in time for testing
Research and development can take up to two months before a new drink hits the menu, Chang says. Even something simple like an old fashioned or Manhattan needs tweaking. A bad batch of an entire keg is costly.
9. Keep messaging clear
Some customers may think a premade drink might be watered down or not prepared as well.
Flipping the script on perception takes a bit of nuance and a lot of education: knowing ingredients of each drink, how the system works, educating the staff to use the right language and
“There are trigger words we try to avoid,” says Purcell. “We might say 'fully composed' cocktails, or we 'pre-articulated' this drink. Sometimes it works if you just say it in a nicer way.”
If done right, draft cocktails are good for business. There's less spillage, since the cocktails are already measured and mixed. Customers can sample a drink before they order, so there's less likelihood they'll send it back for something else. Consistency increases repeat visits.
“If you're accurate, it's so cost-effective,” says Purcell. “If you're measuring the product, managing the lines, staff is trained to pour the correct amount, your bottom line is simpler. Inventory systems can more accurately account for those things.”