Cocktails On Tap: What Are Your Thoughts?

Negroni ($11)

At Alla Spina in Philadelphia, Negronis are available on draft. [Photo: Suzanne Delaney]

The thing about assembling enough people from any industry, as I was reminded of at Tales of the Cocktail down in New Orleans a few weeks back, is that discussions get heated and conflicts arise. Get enough bartenders in one room and differences in philosophy will emerge pretty quickly.

At a seminar about cocktails on tap—a growing trend, and one that drinks editor Maggie predicted would become more common over the course of the year—a debate arose almost immediately.

The panelists—Matt Seiter from Sanctuaria in Saint Louis, Kevin Diedrich from Jasper's in San Francisco, Scott Huth from Tavernita in Chicago—all have at least one cocktail on tap, and all feel their programs have been a success. They outlined all the benefits to a bar program: the ease of service (it takes only seconds); the consistency of the drink (even an inexperienced bartender will deliver the same drink); the novelty of the experience (all three mentioned that customers routinely asked about the drinks on tap).

But questions flew from an audience of folks in the same industry. Many were about the technical aspects, matters of oxidation and setting up the proper equipment, and so forth. Many others, however, were about the culture of drinking and the customer experience. "We have spent so many years training drinkers to accept that a good cocktail takes time, and patience, and effort," yelled out one (probably inebriated) audience member. "Aren't you undoing all that effort by just sticking drinks on tap?" Another question followed: "Don't customers feel shortchanged if their bartender doesn't have to do anything?"

The arguments got more insular and political from there—but that's an issue I found myself wondering about in the end. How do patrons perceive drinks on tap, and in what audiences?

The San Fran Spout ($7)

At the Wayland in NYC, Fernet and homemade cola are premixed and dispensed with a soda gun. [Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

Myself, if I were at a bar that had any sort of cocktail on tap, I'd probably give it a try. First, sure, the novelty factor. Secondly, the implicit endorsement from the bar: we like this drink enough to make 100 liters of it at a time. Third, the fact that it was probably made with some care from the person really in charge of the program; I wouldn't get a well-designed cocktail made incorrectly by a less talented bartender, for instance.

But at the same time, so much of drinking is about ritual: watching your drink come together, constructed one element at a time. I can imagine myself missing that—yet of course it's not as if these bars don't serve traditional cocktails, too. And while I can't imagine myself feeling "shortchanged," as if I didn't get a "real" cocktail, I can imagine how a person would interpret the situation that way.

Having not tasted these drinks side-by-side with traditionally made ones, I can't vouch for whether the quality of the cocktail is identical (though the drinks on tap I have had have been quite good). Still, I'm more interested in the experience it creates, and whether drinkers will warm to the idea. A few years ago, wine on tap was a novelty; now, I see even the occasional corner pizzeria or new downscale bar with a red and a white tap. It seems probable that, at least over the near term, we'll see more cocktails served in the same way. Now I'm wondering how new customers will perceive that experience.

What are your thoughts about drinks on tap? Have you ever been to a bar that has them? And why would you order them—or not order them?