The ice-cold taps sprouting out of the front bar at Iron Cactus downtown might not appear out of the ordinary, but many people raise an eyebrow or do a double take when they realize the sprawling text on the handles advertises Herradura Blanco instead of Corona.
“It’s an eye-catcher,” Gary Manley, general partner at the Iron Cactus, says about the four taps that pour tequila. “A lot of people expect it to be beer.”
Pilsners and porters used to be the only things you’d find served on tap in a restaurant or bar. Today, it’s not unusual to find wine, spirits, cocktails and more dispensed from a keg instead of a bottle, glass or can. It’s not only novelty that drives managers to offer a variety of beverages on tap. The practice is helping to tighten up service behind the bar and make sure customers receive the highest quality product possible.
At Iron Cactus, three brands of tequila are regularly available on tap: Herradura Blanco, Cazadores Reposado and Avión. A fourth tap rotates about every three months (right now it’s Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo). Manley admits that one of the primary perks of the tap system is that it surprises and delights customers. Bartenders serve the chilled tequila by the shot, but Manley also says that “if somebody’s ordering a mixed drink, margarita or a tequila cocktail that uses one of those tequilas, we ask them to pull it off the machine, so people can see it happen. It piques their interest.”
Dispensing the spirit from the tap guarantees that the tequila is served at optimal flavor. “Most people that come in to drink a blanco tequila want it chilled. As soon as you introduce ice to the equation, you are changing the flavor profile of the tequila,” Manley says. “So doing tequila on tap makes sense. We’re getting the effect that people want, a chilled tequila, but we’re not ruining the integrity of the product by adding ice and changing the flavor profile.”
To illustrate his point, Manley asked the bartender to shake a shot of Herradura blanco poured from a bottle with ice and pull a second shot neat off the tap. Both samples were cold, but the difference in quality was notable. The one dispensed from the tap rested clear and silky smooth in the glass and offered a healthy bouquet of herbaceous agave. The shaken sample strained from the cocktail tin had a frothy, cloudy opacity with a floating layer of ice chips, and tasted thin and chalky, lacking in complexity by comparison.
Without the extra dilution and vigorous assault from the shaker tin, the tequila retains its natural flavors while still coming out at a consistent, frigid 30 degrees. “It’s a unique thing that works and presents a better product,” Manley says. “The feedback has been really good.”
Tequila also can be found on tap at Sully’s Side Bar and Tacos ‘N Tequila. At Swift’s Attic and Third Base, an array of spirits is available on draught.
A kegging system is a new vehicle used to create high quality beverages in the world of craft cocktails as well.
At Liberty Tavern, general manager Michael Creecy put the bar’s signature Moscow Mule on tap in mid-December, because at the time, “every bartender would make it slightly different, so by putting a specific ratio in the keg, every time it’s poured, that drink will taste the same,” he says. Although quality drove his decision to serve the Mule on tap, Creecy also echoed Manley’s sentiments about sparking a new level of conversation across the bar. “When you see that tap handle, people already want to know what’s going on.”
For him, the payoff is worth the extra effort. Because there doesn’t seem to be a central agency selling pre-kegged cocktails (yet), Creecy takes the construction into his own hands, pouring 17 liters of Tito’s vodka and 172 cans of Goslings ginger beer into each 15.5 gallon keg. “It’s saved the cocktail, because no one was really ordering it before,” he says. “Gave it some exposure, and it’s my No. 1 selling cocktail now. Went from second-to-last to first.”
Bar manager Jason Stevens also offers a cocktail on tap at Bar Congress. The carbonated Green River cocktail, a 2.5 gallon batch of agave syrup infused with grapefruit and basil, lime juice, green chartreuse and vodka, was put into the keg early last fall. Stevens appreciates the methodology because it makes getting complicated cocktails out to customers quicker and efficient, crucial in a bustling space like Congress.
“Ticket times are four to five minutes even on super busy nights,” which can wear on a customer’s patience when the bar is at peak capacity, he says. People want drinks served quickly, but they still want a really well-crafted cocktail, he says. The keg system achieves speed without sacrificing flavor. Like a gourmet soup or sauce, as the ingredients have time to mingle and develop in the keg, the drink evolves and comes out mature and cohesive. The Green River cocktail is one of the top-selling cocktails across Second Bar + Kitchen, Bar Congress and Congress.
Although cocktails on tap haven’t taken off the same way spirits have yet, Stevens says he thinks the movement is here to stay. “I do predict a lot more of this going on,” he says. Watch for more bars to jump into the kegged cocktail world in the coming year, most notably at Adam Bryan’s upcoming Motel. You will also find a Moscow Mule on tap at the new BlackFinn American Pub in the Domain.
With wine, the most appealing reason for taps over bottles is that the keg keeps the liquid fresh for a longer period of time.
At Second Bar + Kitchen, four wines, typically traditional American varietals such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and merlot, are always available on tap. Paula Rester, wine director at Second, says that “age, heat and oxygen are all factors in wine going bad, and when you can eliminate those by holding the wine in keg, using an inert gas, you can keep the wine from spoiling a lot faster.” With no oxygen slowly eating away at the liquid inside the keg, every pour tastes just as clean and appealing as the first.
At Bar Congress, the liquid dispensing system is slightly different than a standard keg but achieves similar results. Through an enomatic system that’s nestled into the back bar, gas is pumped into individual bottles, essentially making each one an isolated mini-keg. This system works best for smaller, unusual or unique varieties that might not have the appeal to sell enough to fill a keg, Rester says. Eight wine-based products are stored on the left side of the enomatic and eight of bar manager Stevens’ house hospitality shots are in bottles on the right. The liquid will remain fresh for up to three weeks, according to the company that makes the system.
Rester says she also likes the idea of serving wine from a tap because many wineries now ship pre-packaged kegs directly to the bar, which saves time and cuts down on packaging waste. There’s no bottle, label or box that ends up in the trash after the wine has been consumed. “We have a 19.5 liter keg, which is like 26 bottles of wine, and we have four wines on tap. So when you look at that at the end of the year, it’s something like 2.5 tons of waste that is saved. It’s pretty incredible,” Rester says.
Pedernales Cellars recently jumped on the kegged wine train for the same reason — to cut down on unnecessary waste. President Fredrick Osterberg says the decision came after talking to the owners of independent grocery store In.gredients while they were still in the planning stages of the store. “The packaging issue is obviously big, and it fits with our theme here of sustainability and minimizing our footprint. It’s very environmentally sound,” he says.
Osterberg says the kegging process takes about as much effort as bottling individually, but because the kegs are reused, there’s a bit of savings, both financial and environmental. Right now, Pedernales delivers only to In.gredients, whose central philosophy is finding ways to serve products without creating unnecessary waste. Christian Lane, co-founder of In.gredients, says customers now can purchase wine by the glass or growler (or growlette, which is the half-sized, two-pint version of the growler), and they hope to bring on more taps.
In addition to wine, In.gredients also buys pre-packaged kegs from WunderPilz Kombucha and Third Coast Coffee.
Third Coast manager Clay Roper says that In.gredients was the pilot program for the cold brew in kegs. Since it’s been well received, they’ve recently paired with Whole Foods’ Austin food truck as well (Whole Foods offers several beverages on tap; wine and beer can be bought at Bar Lamar, and kombucha can be ordered in many of the stores and on the food truck).
Roper likes delivering the low-acidity coffee in kegs because, like wine, it ensures that the customer is receiving a fresher product. “There’s also a great aesthetic sense of getting something like cold brew coffee out of the tap,” he said. “You also have to interact with somebody to put that coffee in your container, so there’s a good place of community and conversation that can occur around that.”
You also can order cold brew by the glass at the recently opened Buzzmill on East Riverside Drive. Travis Kizer with Bootleg Roasters was brought in to run the coffee program when they opened earlier this year. He roasts all the coffee for the establishment and produces the cold brew as well, which is funneled into a keg for service.
For the team behind the coffeehouse, it was a decision driven by not only the novelty of offering coffee on tap, but also the way the delivery helps maintain a constant flavor. “It’s delicious. Comes out at a constant 38 degrees. Tastes a little bit cleaner and sweeter that way,” Kizer says. Like In.gredients, Buzzmill will begin offering a growler exchange program soon, so people can transport the goods home in a recyclable container and make their environmental footprint a little bit smaller.