Ask the bartender at the Rabbit Hole what’s on tap and you might not get the answer you expected. Sure, they have a spread of craft beers and even a few wines on draft. But the newly opened Korean pub and restaurant in Midtown Global Market is one of a few places in the Twin Cities serving kegged cocktails.
“It always interested me because the concept is great,” said owner Thomas Kim. “You get to have these multiple-ingredient cocktails, but be able to serve it in a manner of seconds.”
In a post-“mixology” world, waiting 10 minutes for an exquisite cocktail made with OCD-level care is pretty standard. But by mixing and kegging five-gallon batches of some of the Rabbit Hole’s signature drinks, Kim is able to make more than 200 in one shot and get them in guests’ hands in a fraction of the time. “Using new techniques to create a new experience has always been a cool thing,” said the mohawked chef.
Bars across the country from Jasper’s Corner Tap in San Francisco to Chicago’s Tavernita have served drinks on draft for a while. While Kim's not the first in town with kegged cocktails, he's embraced the concept more than most, offering six taps plus a sprightly kegged, carbonated and bottled Negroni Adult Soda. Though it’s clearly printed on the menu, he said many guests don’t even realize their drinks came from a keg until their second round.
This past summer Icehouse began kegging three of its sipping shots — two-ounce rocks drinks — including the Randy Moss-referencing Straight Cash Homey (basically an Old Fashioned). Bar manager Jon Olson said the kegs were an extension of the swift-service, pre-batched cocktail program that esteemed barman Johnny Michaels devised for the Eat Street restaurant and music venue. “It’s been a really fun thing to have that speedy cocktail,” Olson said. “When I put out that cocktail I know that it’s going to taste good and it’s going to be consistent.”
Consistency was part of Kim’s keg attraction, though admittedly it took research and tinkering to learn the ins and outs. He said acidic juices can corrode standard keg lines (fresh OJ for the Blood, Sand and Ice is added in the glass) and flavored simple syrups, like the orgeat in Kim’s fernet-taming Not Doing Jack in the Morning, can cloud the drinks unless finely strained.
Then there’s accounting for the subtle dilution that stirred or shaken drinks normally undergo. Water is added to the pre-made batches that yield more than 210 cocktails, replicating the ice melt of a singularly made drink.
Sea Change manager Nick Lane is also mixing certain cocktails by the batch. But instead of kegging his smaller, five-liter concoctions, they are aged in oak barrels for 45 days, softening the alcohol burn, drawing out certain flavors and imparting hints of the wood. “A lot of the stuff that [chef] Jamie [Malone] is doing in the kitchen is aging, fermenting, waiting for flavors to develop,” Lane said. “So it seemed like a cool tie-in to do drinks in the same manner.”
Spearheaded stateside by Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Portland’s Clyde Common, barrel-aged cocktails are a trend in their own right and can also be found at W.A. Frost and the St. Paul Grill. Lane has aged at least eight different cocktails, including an earthy mushroom Manhattan using porcini bitters and an impeccably smooth Negroni.
One of the arguments against kegged or otherwise pre-batched cocktails is that it strips away the performance aspect — bartenders building drinks like meticulous spirit-wielding scientists, the romantic sound of a vigorous shake or a bar spoon swirling in a mixing glass. While Olson appreciates traditional cocktailing, he counters that there’s room for short-order charm.
“I would say technology is good, it’s just how you approach it,” Olson said. “Maybe it didn’t take them too long to make, but they can tell you everything that’s in the cocktail, why it’s in there and what it does for the cocktail. I think that’s where a lot of romanticism needs to happen with the quick-service cocktails.”