When the burger joint DLUX opened off of the Capitol Square last September, kegged cocktails were a key part of the novelty.
The owners went to restaurants and bars in Chicago and San Francisco to find concept inspiration, said Alex Felland, assistant general manager at the Food Fight restaurant.
"They saw (kegged cocktails) popping up, but they hadn't seen a lot of places in Madison do that," Felland said. "It is a lot of work on the back end to make them, but it's much more efficient for the bartender."
Crafted like a typical cocktail but easier to serve than a pint of beer, carbonated cocktails in kegs and strong concoctions aged in oak barrels put a twist on everything from summer sangria to a classic Manhattan.
The appeal of pre-mixed cocktails is both speed and consistency. And especially in summer, the popularity of these cocktails, whether strong and smooth or slightly sweet and bubbly, has only been growing.
The kegging trend started in larger, cocktail-savvy cities. High volume restaurants liked the efficiency of keg-carbonated cocktails without sacrificing quality. Though carbonation changes the flavor slightly, many claim it's hard to tell without a side-by-side tasting.
Earlier this year, Alison Baitz wrote in The Washington Post that new technologies offer another route to a "quality handmixed cocktail" for diners who would "rather spend more time drinking than watching a bartender theatrically preparing (their) order."
At the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail mixologists' convention in New Orleans, bartenders said cocktails in kegs are "all about service, all about hospitality." A Chicagoist piece last summer called "The Case for Kegged Cocktails" highlighted Tavernita on Chicago's near north side, which has 10 cocktails on tap.
"Draft beer has undoubtedly become ubiquitous," wrote Roger Kamholz for Chicagoist. "The notion of having a cocktail that's simply drawn from a spigot may seem, for some people, to fly in the face of their expectations of what enjoying a cocktail entails ... a fresh, custom-made drink to order."
Though bartenders like how uniformly carbonated kegged cocktails are, Felland allowed that pulling a sparkling margarita out of a tap has a different feel than a muddled or shaken drink. DLUX offers four kegged cocktails, including a white wine sangria ($7) served with lemon, lime and orange slices, and a citrus vodka house punch ($6) made with pineapple and mint.
Two taps changed for summer drinks about two months ago, swapping out a riff on a dark and stormy and a whiskey-based cherry bounce Collins (see the non-carbonated recipe here).
"I guess you lose some of that flair, putting six ingredients into a glass in front of the customer," Felland said. "But I think it becomes a different kind of flair when you go the tap lines and open it up and something already prepared comes out."
Drinkers are embracing the trend, but bartenders usually have some explaining to do.
"The gin and tonic, it doesn't really taste like a normal gin and tonic," Felland said, describing DLUX's mix of Barton gin, fresh lime juice and sweet housemade tonic (the "Summer Sonic Gin and Tonic," $6). "It's a great conversation piece. We push our servers, if they see one of the customers looking at the drinks, to say 'Hey, have you tried the kegged cocktails?'"
Another bonus: kegged cocktails make it easy to taste a sample.
At Graze, L'Etoile's casual cousin on the Capitol Square, cocktails rotate in and out of small oak barrels on a six-to eight-week schedule.
According to Ruben Mendez, beverage director at L'Etoile and Graze, two five-liter barrels contain bourbon Manhattans. In two five-gallon barrels there are a variation on a Negroni ($10) — Death's Door gin, fortified wine, a bitter Italian liqueur called Cynar amaro and housemade vermouth — and a twist on a Boulevardier (bourbon, Campari, vermouth) made with rye whiskey.
"The oak adds certain characteristics," said Taylor Bougie, manager at Graze. "It tends to add a roundness to the mouthfeel, kind of a vanilla sweetness. It buffs the edges … that's why you'll often see something (in oak) like a Negroni or a Boulevardier that's made with Campari, for instance.
"Campari is medicinal," Bougie added. "It's delicious if you love it, but it's really in your face. It can be a little abrasive. When you barrel age something, it makes it more friendly."
Nearby at Merchant, bar manager JR Mocanu has barrel aged a powerful combination of mezcal, green chartreuse, lime, maraschino and bitters. Oak transforms the cocktail from simply "citrusy, herbaceous and smoky" into a more nuanced drink that "brings out the smoky and savory," according to the menu.
For talented bartenders, putting a cocktail in a keg or a barrel allows them to add yet another element of creativity to simple recipes.
"The reason classic cocktails are so fun is because they are so basic in their ingredients that adjusting the proportions slightly one way or the other can really radically affect the flavor," Bougie said. "Throwing in an amaro instead of Campari, or a housemade sweet vermouth — there are a lot of ways to tweak these drinks. I think that's part of the reason they have such lasting appeal.
"It's easy to take something that's automatically delicious and well known and make it your own."
MIX IT UP
Kegs and barrels are building blocks for bar manager Hastings Cameron at Forequarter, the Underground Food Collective's small restaurant on East Johnson Street.
In addition to a strong housemade (non-alcoholic) ginger beer, Cameron rotates two cocktails on tap, made in five- or two-and-a-half-gallon kegs.
The Whisky Sodapop ($8) is a riff on Japanese bottled cocktails, while the Ginsandtonic ($8) involves "several gins," housemade strawberry tonic, India Pale Ale and spices, among other things. No cocktail at Forequarter is ever really simple.
"Part of the benefit is, you can do a bunch of work on the front end," Cameron said, "and then in service, if you get a ticket with six drinks and two of them are kegged, that means you have bought yourself a little more time to do fussier stuff."
While the higher octane cocktails do better in oak, cocktails in kegs are best kept very cold and lower in alcohol to ensure they carbonate well. DLUX's gin and tonic, for example, clocks in at 12 percent alcohol per drink.
Cameron has kegged lots of cocktails — gin fizzes, French 75s. He and Mark Bystrom at the Underground commissary also use oak for aging things like potable peach bitters (bitters that you can sip instead of eye-dropper into cocktails) and raspberry liqueur.
Forequarter has started to bottle things, too, like a pretty pink house tonic made with rhubarb and the O Captain!, a "joke on Captain and Coke" made with several rums and served with grated nutmeg.
"I build things in Collins glasses and extrapolate that ratio out," Cameron said. "You have to adjust a little after the fact, because when the whole solution is totally carbonated, flavors will jump out more. You might smell alcohol more, or discern acidity or bitterness more.
"It definitely does change how you perceive flavors."
When it comes to the difference between gin and tonic in a keg and one poured to order, the biggest selling point might be that the kegged cocktail offers something new.
"I think novelty is a factor for people," said Bougie at Graze. "The first time I had a barrel-aged cocktail was at Sardine; they had a barrel-aged Negroni. To see somebody do something different was exciting.
"If you're someone who drinks a lot of Negronis or drinks a lot of Manhattans and somebody gives you a fresh way of drinking it, it's kind of exciting."