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Mixing Cocktails in Bulk

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Presentation, originality, and faster service are perks of batch-mixed beverages.
By Camper English July 2013 Spirits

Cocktails on tap, punch, barrel-aged cocktails, and bottled cocktails—these are some of the hottest trends hitting the bar in recent years. None are flavor trends, but rather changes in format from standard, individual-size drinks. And they can be prepared in advance or mixed to order in bulk, for the added benefit of speeding drink service in busy restaurants. In fact, the downside to the current craft cocktail renaissance is that meticulously-prepared, nuanced, complex drinks take longer to mix, stir, or shake than do Jack & Coke or Gin & Tonic off the soda gun. Customers don’t particularly enjoy the added wait time, and slower drinks can reduce bar profits if price isn’t adjusted accordingly. But all of these new (or retro) formats are showy and appealing, and, at least for now, the novelty entices customers to order the drinks.

Built to Order—Punches, Pitchers, Barrels, and Flasks

Though pitchers are most often associated with beer, sangria, and patio bars, bartenders are finding they can serve other cocktails in them as well. More eye-catching than small cocktail glasses, pitchers brimming with fresh garnishes such as cucumber or orange rounds and herbs such as mint and basil tempt people at nearby tables to follow suit and order their own.

Restaurants like Eveleigh in Los Angeles offer sophisticated cocktails by the pitcher, such as the Eveleigh Lemonade made with chamomile-infused tequila, Cocchi Americano, Combier orange liqueur, lemon juice, and honey.

Punch by the bowl is another revitalized phenomenon that has become more popular of late. One of the first mixed drinks from the 1600s, punch dates back to British sailors traveling to India and incorporating tea and spices into their drinks. Shared bowls of punch were popular through Colonial American days, after which they were phased out in favor of individual-sized beverages. More recently, of course, punch has been associated with college parties and drinks made in trash cans; but bartenders have reclaimed the beverage, inspired by the retro-cocktail movement and the influential book Punch by David Wondrich.

Regardless of formula or flavor, punch has regained a place at the restaurant bar. At venues like Boston’s Citizen Public House, located near Fenway Park, punches are part of the family-style dining program that includes menu selections such as a whole roasted suckling pig. Bar and beverage director, Joy Richard, says people ordering the whole roasted pig will often order several punch bowls, as do people seated at a corner booth at the end of the bar.

Though Richard says the punches don’t necessarily hasten service, the overall program is “built for speed,” with most cocktails containing four or fewer ingredients and the menu featuring a special shot-and-a-beer section. They also offer one cocktail and Fernet-Branca on tap, and are preparing to install a frozen-drink machine in which they’ll serve sophisticated versions of cocktails like Daiquiris and Pina Coladas. “That will be an easy one to sell really quickly,” Richard says.

Other forms of batched-to-order cocktails include tiki drinks served in big ceramic bowls, which are increasing in popularity as bartenders rediscover original formulations of tiki cocktails (although these are more often found at bars than at restaurants).

Batch, in the Hyatt Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter, offers a different twist on tabletop group drinks: two-liter miniature barrels filled with cocktails that serve four to six people. The barrel-sized cocktails include a Sazerac, Rum Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Margarita—and the barrels are available for purchase as well.

Batch also offers “Flask Service,” its take on bottle service. Twelve-ounce flasks decorated with the restaurant’s logo are filled with a base spirit, and served on a tray with separate garnishes, mixers, and ice. Better yet, thanks to New Orleans’ loose liquor laws, the flasks may be taken to go.

Plan Ahead with On Tap, Barrel-Aged, and Bottled Cocktails

Two barrel-aged cocktails are also offered at Batch. This technique, which originated in Portland, Oregon, and is popular internationally, has even reached Las Vegas, where it can be found in the bar SOCIAL in the Palms Casino Resort. These cocktails are mixed in advance, and become integrated and pick up wood flavors as they age for anywhere from 46 hours (in Vegas where everything moves faster), to eight weeks at Batch, to several months at other venues. At service, barrel-aged cocktails are poured and stirred over ice for the customer. (Shaken drinks would contain fruit juices or dairy and therefore be inappropriate for aging due to spoilage.)

Matt Seiter, the regional bar manager for restaurant group In Good Company, offers three barrel-aged cocktails at Sanctuaria in St. Louis. “They speed up service in most bars due to the fact that only one bottle (barrel) is being touched as opposed to multiple,” he says. “From there, though, it takes the same time for stirring or shaking as a regular cocktail. Barrel-aged cocktails save a few seconds per drink, but [multiply] that times 250 drinks per shift and it adds up.”

Bottled cocktails are pre-made drinks typically placed into small, single-serving bottles and capped. At service, the bartender can simply pop the cap and hand it to the patron to drink from the bottle, or serve it with an additional glass full of ice. Some bars bottle their barrel-aged cocktails so the drinks do not continue to absorb wood flavors past a certain point, but most venues offering these drinks carbonate them. (For carbonating cocktails, bartenders typically use a soda siphon or Perlini carbonating shaker.)

Bottled cocktails require a hefty amount of prep work—each one must be poured into the bottle and individually capped—but are very fast at service.

Even faster than popping a cap off a bottled cocktail is pouring one directly from a beer or wine tap behind the bar. The simplest system uses a wine tap with neutral gas (usually nitrogen) that does not carbonate the beverage, and many bars are serving spirits that are frequently ordered as shots on tap, like Citizen Public House that offers Fernet-Branca.

At other venues, like Jasper’s Corner Tap in San Francisco, they batch together stirred (all spirits, no citrus) cocktails into kegs. The Negroni on tap there has been a top-selling drink since bar manager, Kevin Diedrich, put it on the menu.

More complicated is serving carbonated kegged cocktails—as they do at Tavernita in Chicago. There, the program run by cocktail consultants Tippling Brothers includes 10 cocktails on tap plus a white and red sangria. While some of the drinks are pushed through the lines via nitrogen, others are carbonated by carbon dioxide. Those are pre-diluted in the kegs for proper carbonation.

Tippling Brothers’ partner, Paul Tanguay, says that not only do cocktails on tap speed service, they also ensure consistency. The restaurant (and its connected venue Barcito) has a “batchologist” on staff who prepares the kegs, and who Tanguay describes as meticulously accurate. Furthermore, “When you have 600 or 700 covers on a weekend night, how do you do craft cocktails? You have to do batching,” he says.

But a big question is whether these pre-made or bulk cocktails detract from the experience of service. Batch’s director of food and beverage, Ray Gil, says that his table-top barrel cocktails theoretically save time in making one drink rather than six individual ones, but that time is given back to the customers in terms of attention.

“It eliminates the travel time of having to take additional orders, but I still want them to have the full experience of service of having six different cocktails. I don’t want it to be like you drop it on the table and say ‘See ya later.’ It actually gives the server more time to engage with the guest. You have to offer an experience with the drink to make it a win-win,” says Gil.

Tavernita’s consultant Tanguay considered the experience of customers seated at the bar, but noted that bartenders are also mixing shaken and stirred drinks rather than merely pulling tap handles. “We definitely had a fear of backlash, but with a restaurant that big how many people get to experience the art of the bartender? It’s basically the people sitting at the bar: 10 seats. The rest of the people don’t care where a drink comes from as long as it tastes delicious.”

Tanguay drives the point home: If these batched, bottled, barrel-aged, and kegged cocktails were only about speed, bartenders could save a whole lot of effort and serve simple cocktails with sour mix from the soda gun. The more important commonality that these new cocktail formats share is that no matter how fast the drinks come to the customer or how big of a bowl they may be offered in, they retain the quality of craft cocktails served with great ingredients and made with great care.

Spirits Editor’s Note: Make sure you’re aware of laws about pre-batched cocktails in your state. Not all states permit the practice.