Pre-mixed in the pandemic: Are the tides turning for kegged cocktails?

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

25 November 2020

Kegged cocktails have solved a problem for some venues adapting to life in the age of Covid. Will this signal a shift in perceptions of the format, asks Kate Malczewski  

For the better part of a decade, kegged cocktails have divided bartenders. Some praise the efficiency that cocktails on draught can provide; others bemoan the theatricality lost through trading a shaker for a tap.

Before the pandemic, high-volume party bars and fine-dining restaurants alike dedicated valuable lines to kegged cocktails, and spirits brands developed bespoke draught serves for one-off events. The drinks world’s biggest players got involved: Bacardi unveiled its ‘sub-zero’ tap system for Grey Goose Espresso Martinis in May 2019, and Diageo acquired draught cocktail company Tipplesworth in December.

But Covid-19 is changing the way the hospitality industry does business, with venues re-evaluating their offerings to improve both safety and margins. So where do kegged cocktails stand now, and where is the trend headed? 

‘A bit of a game-changer’

Cocktails on draught can certainly help bars deal with some of the challenges the pandemic presents.

Kegged cocktails allow streamlined teams to quickly serve a more consistent product

Consistency and speed of service, the classic advantages of kegged cocktails, are more important than ever as venues attempt to maintain sales while working with limited hours and customer capacity. According to Dino Koletsas of bar consultancy Dare Hospitality, cocktails on tap make sense from a hygiene perspective as well: ‘There are a lot of arguments to be had for offering something produced in a more sterile, safe, controlled environment, taking away a lot of the human contact. For a lot of people with concerns about health and safety, that’s a big plus.’

Before the lockdown, The Hide in Bermondsey, London, dedicated six taps to cocktails; over the summer, these were ‘a bit of a game-changer’ for the bar, says co-owner Paul Mathew.

Murder Inc's Death in the Afternoon
Murder Inc's Death in the Afternoon

He explains that draught cocktails were ‘perfect’ for serving through the bar’s takeaway window, and are practical for socially distanced drinks inside the venue, too. ‘Now that everyone can only be seated away from the bar itself, there’s not a lot of need for theatrics, just the need to get everyone their drinks as quick as possible.’ Mathew notes that, like many bars, The Hide currently has a ‘bare minimum’ of employees, and kegged cocktails allow the streamlined team to quickly serve a more consistent product than they would making each drink to order.

For Elliot Ball, co-founder of Cocktail Trading Company (CTC) in London’s Shoreditch, lockdown also shed new light on kegged cocktails. He had previous experience with the category; last year, the CTC team launched its Soho bar Murder Inc, which touts a Death in the Afternoon on tap as its signature serve. But draught cocktails became a necessity for Ball and the CTC team during lockdown, as they sought to make takeaway sales compliant with both Covid restrictions and the team’s operational needs – ‘not putting loads of prep hours in, stuff like that’.

Their solution was to create an Aperol Spritz on tap (see box below) and serve it through the bar window, and their draught offering evolved from there. ‘We’ve now got two kegs at CTC, they’re constantly on, and we serve them out the window and inside the venue itself,’ says Ball.

Anatomy of a kegged cocktail: Aperol Spritz, Cocktail Trading Company

The Aperol Spritz at Cocktail Trading Company (CTC) in Shoreditch, London is a masterclass in making kegged cocktails work to your bar’s advantage in the age of Covid-19.

‘One of the benefits of kegging and carbonating yourself is the way it changes the drink,’ says CTC co-founder Elliot Ball. ‘Because the whole thing is carbonated, rather than just 50% of the volume, it actually needs less seasoning. This means the drink should be more diluted, which generally makes it taste better and is also easier on our margins.’

To enhance the flavours of the classic serve in a cost-effective way, he swaps out prosecco for a still wine, adds a touch of olive brine, and uses a tea blend in place of soda water – since the whole drink is carbonated in the keg, using fizzy ingredients ‘is a total waste of money’.

Plus, the drink is ideal for CTC’s takeaway window: ‘Because it does a take a little bit of time to physically pour the drink from the taps, we can give the customer a little bit of a spiel about why [kegged cocktails are] so quick and why it’s only £7 for a really big Spritz.’ 

Obstacles remain

Of course, a few stories of kegged cocktail ingenuity don’t mean the category is set for major growth. Pritesh Mody, founder of bottled and draught cocktail company World of Zing, says sales of his cocktail kegs ‘have completely ceased since lockdown’, while ‘bottles and pouches have seen a huge rise’.

In Mody’s opinion, ‘cocktails in [a kegged] format only really make sense in high-volume environments’. Even with bars, pubs and restaurants seeking ways to drive sales, government restrictions mean serving drinks at volume is now less of a concern. What’s more, putting together a kegged cocktail programme requires investment in training and equipment, and the cost is an obvious barrier for venues at the moment.

Kegged cocktails can continue to benefit venues across the spectrum

It’s worth noting that The Hide and CTC had experience with keg systems before lockdown; bars starting from scratch will likely need more resources. ‘The higher cash outlay on equipment and the large formats themselves mean that a business needs to be confident in achieving strong and regular sales,’ says Mody. ‘Until events are resumed, physical distancing relaxed and wet-led venues are permitted to trade properly again, I can’t see any major opportunities in this area.’

And the benefits of draught drinks don’t change the concerns over negative consumer perceptions of kegged cocktails. Jason Glynn, one of the managers at Shop Cuvée in Highbury, London, used to manage Iron Stag, chef Adam Handling’s now-shuttered Hoxton whisky bar specialising in cocktails on tap. Though the venue had serious cocktail credentials – the concept was a collaboration with accomplished bartenders Rich Woods and Matt Whiley – Glynn says the kegs turned some customers off.

‘One of the biggest issues I had in Iron Stag was that if you served a drink and people weren’t aware it was from a keg they’d have no problem, but if you served one in front of them from the keg they were quite taken aback by it,’ he explains. ‘Cocktails, in the average person’s view, are supposed to involve some form of creation right in front of you, with techniques, shakers and so on. To receive something from a keg takes away that aspect from the consumer.’

The evolution of a trend

While Glynn points out examples of great kegged serves, like the Tennessee Nitro Espresso Martini created by the Mr Lyan team, he thinks there are ‘probably more negatives than there are positives’ to the category. ‘The reality of the situation is that almost any bar that has done a kegged cocktail-focused theme or concept closes down,’ he says. ‘I think it only works if you do one [draught cocktail] on a menu.’

Tennessee Nitro Espresso Martini by Mr Lyan
Tennessee Nitro Espresso Martini by Mr Lyan

Dare Hospitality’s Koletsas disagrees: ‘I think there’s a place for all bars to have a [draught] offering, from London’s most exciting venues to chain bars that buy pre-packaged, commercially produced kegged cocktails. I would look at it as an opportunity for bars to survive a little bit more efficiently by reducing waste, reducing costs that would make them non-viable in the current climate.’

Putting together a kegged cocktail programme requires investment in training and equipment, and the cost for venues is an obvious barrier

And so the kegged cocktail debate rages on.

Yet even Glynn, whose experience with the category has made him a bit of a sceptic, recognises that cocktails on tap serve a purpose for certain bars at present. ‘If you only have people in your venue for a certain amount of time and can serve them quicker, with more drinks and more time to drink, then yeah, you probably would have a return on that,’ he concedes.

The events of 2020 have definitely contributed to the category’s evolution, Ball says. ‘I think within any trend there’s the self-generation, the bullshit aspect, where people start talking about it and imitating it, whereas the more organic kind of trend is where circumstances make something more favourable and more profitable.’

Though kegs have been gaining traction, Ball now sees them becoming something more authentic: ‘They’re a really good solution to a problem’.

Advice on tap: Words of wisdom from bartenders who’ve been there, kegged that

'When we were developing our kegged recipes, some of the challenges were around using acids to replicate fresh citrus, which would oxidise in the keg or have particulates. We’re turning our kegged drinks over every week so it’s not like they need to have a long shelf life, but you still need to make sure they’re not clogging up the systems.'

Paul Mathew, The Hide

'I think if you can find a correct price point, find the correct drinks and make those drinks to a good quality, then you will have a more accepting consumer, and financially kegged cocktails could make more sense.'

Jason Glynn, Shop Cuvée (formerly manager of Iron Stag)

'A lot of people kegging in the early days, and I think still now, essentially take drinks which they know work in their native format, stick them in a keg, and go ‘right, that's done’. But it’s not the same thing at all. It’s a completely different format.'

Elliot Ball, Cocktail Trading Company

'For businesses that have multiple venues, kegged cocktails are an opportunity to create consistency and brand identity that helps keep a common denominator in terms of their concept, while still allowing for creativity and individuality based on individual talent and variation from location to location.'

Dino Koletsas, Dare Hospitality

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