On a recent visit to a swanky bar in Charleston, S.C., I ordered an $11 cocktail made from mezcal, summer berries, and jalapenos. The bartender grabbed a glass, turned around, and poured my drink from a small tap behind the bar. Seconds later, it was sitting in front of me. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or impressed. After one sweet-tart sip, I decided on the latter.
Over the last few years, draft cocktails have started turning up in bars across the country. Bartenders are drawn to the convenience of the pre-mixed blend as well as its quirk factor. Apparently, it’s also a superior way to serve some spirits-based concoctions like Manhattans and Negronis.
“Some drinks, the longer those ingredients sit together, the more the flavors meld,” says Jayce McConnell, head bartender at Charleston’s Edmund’s Oast. “It can actually make the drink taste better if you let it sit together. It’s just a different approach to it.”
With 48 taps behind the bar and a brewery on-site, the Edmund’s Oast team knows a thing or two about putting things in kegs. Two of the city’s biggest beer advocates — Scott Shor and Rich Carley — run the place, and while the focus is firmly on hops, the cocktail program gets its share of the spotlight, too.
“It’s fun to say, ‘I have an absolutely lethal punch that will knock you on your ass, just let me know and I’ll pull the trigger,’” McConnell says. “We do a lot of volume, and a lot of our cocktails are production-intensive… but the draft cocktails are easy, out the door, and they still stand up to any of the other cocktails.”
Most of the cocktails on draft at Edmund’s Oast are punches with historic Southern roots. “A lot of punches we enjoy the most involve champagne, so we can put all the ingredients together in the keg and maintain the pressure and carbonation levels that we like,” McConnell says. “So it tastes like it was just made for a party, but it’s ready to go in a keg. It’s really easy to pour.”
One of McConnell’s standbys is the Chatham Artillery Punch, an old punch from Savannah made with bourbon, brandy, rum, champagne, lemon shrub, lemon oil, and sugar. Another is the Charles Dickens Punch, a blend of over-proof rum, aged rum, cognac, lemon juice and peel, and water.
But don’t ring the death knell for the hand-mixed cocktail just yet. “Certain drinks should always be made fresh,” McConnell says. “Drinks that have fruit juice should always be shaken to brighten the drink, otherwise it gets kind of dull.”
While some bars are jumping on the draft cocktail bandwagon without the knowledge to back it up, McConnell says he hopes it’s a trend that’ll stick around. “If your drink tastes good, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he says. “I love making drinks in front of people, but I don’t think there should be a hard line rule that draft cocktails don’t have a place behind the bar. As long as there are spouts with handles on them, people are going to find a way to make alcohol come out of them.”