Serving guests well-crafted drinks faster can be a challenge, but not if you use one of these three methods.
By Cole Younger Just
We are well into what some would call the golden age of the cocktail renaissance. What began in cities like New York and San Francisco as more or less a chef ’s approach to creating a cocktail – sourcing fresh and seasonal ingredients, pairing those ingredients creatively with the vast spectrum of all things edible and using a range of methods from modern cooking techniques to those borrowed from laboratories – has become common around the state. And, as is necessary when using these involved methods for cocktails and cocktail menus, planning months in advance, with prep starting weeks out and a bartenders set up for service often starting two to three hours before opening.
This cocktail movement began catching fire in Atlanta around 2008 with Holeman & Finch and Trois. Prior to this movement, a bartender’s setup time was around 30 to 45 minutes before shift and was as simple as getting ice, doing a little restock, cutting fruit for the garnish tray and taking store ’n pours out of the refrigerator. These were filled with bought juice that can last weeks or more due to all of the processing and preservatives – to say nothing of the flavor engineering that goes into making commercial juices taste like ‘real’ fruit.
Any place with a reputation for pouring a proper drink now begins with whole fruit and fresh juicing pre shift. That juice is destined for many places from an à la minute cocktail component to housemade simple syrups, ginger beer, tonic water or seasonal shrubs. Many of these preparations take days to prepare.
Beverage menus of all kinds must strike a balance between being well crafted and efficient. The early years of this movement produced some great cocktails, but they could take quite some time make. But the days of the 10 – to 15-minute cocktail times are disappearing as the industry pivots slightly towards speed and efficiency through use of creativity, analytics and modern techniques. This is good for many reasons, from the operators’ bottom line to the more efficient bartender with higher tips to the happier guests.
By applying an analytical approach to cocktail development, production and execution, you can accurately track spending and achieve consistency. This can help an establishment gain that elusive yet highly coveted reputation for being a place to get a good drink regardless of which bartender is behind the stick.
This approach starts with something very simple, the jigger, and boils down to measuring everything at every step of the process in the most accurate and appropriate way. The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold are books I reference daily and are great starting points for those interested in this way of thinking and operating a bar.
Rather than eye-balling a quart container of granulated white sugar to a quart container of hot water to make a simple syrup in the American standard ratio of 1:1, consider investing in a decent gram scale and begin weighing those ingredients each and every time. It’s a degree of precision I had long seen my pastry chef friends employ, yet never thought about doing myself before rethinking my approach.
I also worked to rewrite all of my recipes in very precise language using consistent measurements. For example, I always weigh sugar and quantify that weight in grams from recipe to recipe from one project to the next.
Once all of the syrups and tinctures had been reworked based on weight, it’s time to start using a jigger. At first, it was painful, having scoffed at bartenders ‘tied’ to the necessity of using a jigger in my earlier days of free-pouring – I suppose it was poetic justice for my short-sightedness and retribution for my juvenile and judgmental attitude. Soon though, I felt at ease and realized what a value assured consistency could bring to a bar.
Increasing Speed and Efficiency
The next step is to increase the overall speed and efficiency of the execution of the cocktail. There’s a few ways to do that, namely pre-batching, putting cocktails on draft and bottled cocktails.
A cocktail with too many ingredients can result in long ticket times and can be detrimental to the bottom line, but pre-batching can help. Pre-batching is really the original method of imbibing – think large batch punches that predate the cocktail by more than a couple hundred years. Nowadays punch has evolved into the modern equivalent of a single serving ‘punch’ made to order, but originally it was served in a large communal bowl.
The beauty of this is that all the prep is done beforehand. At the time of service, it’s as simple as ladling out the boozy concoction into the punch cup and moving on to the next person. To translate a large batch-style cocktail into a modern pre-batched cocktail, there are some things to consider and a number of ways to get to your final pour.
To properly execute a punch, a large block of ice is typically added to the punch bowl pre-service to chill and dilute the punch prior to consumption. But what do you do with the leftover punch that isn’t sold by night’s end? Plus, what you serve toward the end of the night vs. the beginning will inevitably be a different consistency and dilution.
The solution: draft and bottled cocktails. If we take the best parts of each era of imbibing – the pre-cocktail days of the punch bowl and the made-to-order cocktail days – and combine them in such a way that increases efficiency and speed yet still delivers a highly crafted and well thought-out drink, then we are in the sweet spot of consistency and craft all the while maintaining a healthy bottom line.
Going the Non-Carbonated Draft Route
There really are two different styles of draft cocktail, carbonated and uncarbonated.
The easiest of the two, in my opinion, is to go the non- carbonated or still route. Think stirred boozy cocktails here, like the Negroni, Martini or Manhattan. It’s as simple as taking your recipe for the cocktail and scaling it up to match close to the size of your Cornelius keg. (These come in a variety of sizes, however the 5 gal. keg is pretty standard.)
One important aspect to consider when doing this is the dilution ratio that you obtain when making the cocktail à la minute by stirring it with ice in a mixing glass. A 20 percent dilution is the standard ratio of the total volume of the drink. So say you’re making a batch of Manhattans using the ratio of 2 oz. rye to 1 oz. Italian vermouth plus 2 dashes of aromatic bitters. The dilution of this drink is .60 oz, bringing your total volume to 3.6 oz. When your cocktail recipe is scaled up, be sure to properly dilute it as well. Then it is time to keg it up and attach the gas to force out the liquid when the tap handle is pulled.
In the case of a still/classically stirred cocktail, the gas needed is nitrogen, which you can either request from your local draft
line servicing company or create an account with your local welding shop, which is what I do. You will need to buy a tank,
and the weld shop will exchange your empty tank for a full tank of your requested gas.
The nitrogen will also need a regulator to attach it to the keg. Once that’s done, it’s as easy as hooking up the keg to an available empty tap and voila – cocktail on draft.
By using nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide, there are no lingering after effects of the nitrogen on the cocktail – the nitrogen literally boils off at standard atmospheric pressure, which is about 1 bar or 14.969 PSI, leaving behind only the faintest taste of sweetness. The time it takes to pour a Manhattan from the tap vs. the time it takes to prepare that drink à la minute in a busy bar setting is invaluable to your guest experience and to your bottom line.
Sticking with Carbonated
The second style, carbonated cocktails, is slightly more complicated. Generally speaking, this method is better for classically served drinks such as a gin and tonic, a Venetian spritz or a Moscow mule. Except for the Moscow mule, you would take your ingredients and mix them – this time it’s not necessary to include additional dilution into the equation, as these drinks will be served over ice in the same method as if they were being built to order.
You will need a tank of carbon dioxide and a CO2 regulator, and you’ll need to pre-carbonate the cocktails for around 36-48 hours prior to service. Once carbonation is complete, you are ready to pour – same as nitrogenated cocktails – as quick as serving a beer.
In the case of the Moscow mule and other cocktails containing fresh juices, additional steps must be employed to ensure consistent cocktails. The name of the game is clarification. Your juices must be clarified to be consistent from start to end of keg. How and what does that mean?
The clarification of juices removes particulate matter from a juice, typically pectin and some cellulose that is broken up when juicing the fruit. With citrus fruit, it’s usually all pectin. There are a few methods to remove the cloudy impurity from your juice, and which one you use depends largely on what equipment you have at your disposal.
One method is very quick and can be done the day of but relies on a centrifuge. The other is more time consuming – around 2 days – yet does not require a centrifuge. If you don’t have a centrifuge, the method used is similar to clarifying stocks for consommés. But instead of using a raft to clarify a stock, this technique uses a freeze-thaw method that employees the seaweed powder agar agar to form a gel.
Why should you clarify juices? For the same reason you shake a cocktail that contains a fresh-squeezed juice – to thoroughly emulsify the juice in to the rest of the ingredients. Gravity is going to want to separate out the fresh-squeezed juice (more dense) from the alcohol (less dense).
Additionally, the sugar in the cocktail will want to combine with the particulate matter in the fresh-squeezed juice and will either attempt to ferment or mold, creating a nasty, unsafe situation for your guests. Thirdly, if you’re like me, you like rip- your-face-off levels of carbonation in a drink that is supposed to be carbonated.
All that particulate matter creates what’s called a nucleation sight – that’s just a fancy term to describe the place at which a CO2 molecule will want to latch on to or attach itself to release the dissolved CO2 in the cocktail.
While the stream of bubbles may look appealing, it’s destroying all your hard work of getting those bubbles into the cocktail to begin with. Take most highly carbonated sodas for instance. They’re all crystal clear with no particulate matter, what’s known as “turbidity”, i.e. cloudiness. Once all of the pectin and cellulose has been removed from your juices, then you can keg most of them up in the same way that the other cocktails were.
One notable exception is lime juice. While it certainly is possible to clarify lime, the shelf life is not extended when clarified, so it would need to be clarified daily and added to the draft or bottled cocktail à la minute.
If draft cocktails seem like a bridge too far, then bottling cocktails may be another way to increase efficiency at your establishment.
All the same production methods will still need to be employed, i.e. dilution for still cocktails and clarification for carbonated.
Where the process differs slightly is that for still cocktails, it’s as easy as bottling your Manhattan or Negroni in a 4 oz. glass bottle and storing them at or preferably below freezing temperature for service.
For carbonated cocktails, there’s one additional piece of inexpensive equipment that will be needed to carbonate the cocktails prior to bottling. It’s called a Liquid Bread Cap – essentially it screws onto a standard soda bottle and attaches to the ball lock connector of your CO2 rig. It allows you to carbonate directly into the soda bottle.
When using this method, it’s important to be sure you’re carbonating at about 32°F, as carbon dioxide dissolves into colder liquid much more easily than into warmer liquid – especially alcohol, which is notoriously more difficult to carbonate.
The bottle you choose to use will depend on the serving size you want to sell; however, I will say from experience the 187 mL clear crown cap bottles are the perfect size for carbonated beverages.
Once the liquid is carefully transferred from soda bottle to 187 mL bottle, immediately place crown cap on top and with capper lock cap into place. You are now ready to sell these cocktails as quick as people can order them.
These ideas offer more than just a visual wow factor, they can provide increased efficiency and consistency behind the bar, thus allowing more guests to be served in a shorter amount of time. Ultimately, you will keep your guests happier and increase your bottom line.
Cole Younger Just is co-owner of Atlanta- based Just Walk Consulting, where recent clients have included Full Commission and Old Fourth Distillery. He was previously beverage director at Bellina Alimentari, The Cockentrice and Last Word. He’s originally from the New Orleans area, but has called Atlanta home since 1996.