Cocktails, not beer, on tap at a pair of D.C. bars

Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST - Jack Rose, which offers more than 1,000 kinds of bourbon and Scotch whiskey in bottles, now offers one on tap. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The next time you walk into a bar and ask, “What’s new on draft?” the answer might not be “DC Brau” or “a great new Belgian IPA,” but “Manhattans” or “whiskey.”

Two District bars have traded beers for spirits on their taps, dispensing shots and even aged cocktails. It’s a new national trend, but the early indications are that it could stick around longer than the pickleback. (What, you forgot about those shots chased by pickle brine already?)

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The Passenger was the first bar in town to put spirits on draft, switching one of its four taps from beer to Fernet Branca in late February. (The bittersweet Italian herb liqueur is a big favorite among bartenders and has been featured on tap in San Francisco watering holes for a while.) The bar’s in-the-know cocktail crowd quickly began ordering a shot of Fernet to go with a canned microbrew.

About a week later, Jack Rose Dining Saloon unveiled its own house-built tap system, which featured Willett’s Orange Blossom Special, a limited-edition five-year-old Kentucky whiskey. Pretty soon, says bar manager Rachel Sergi, they were going through about 16 bottles of the stuff every two weeks. (Not bad when only 200 bottles were made in the first place.)

Both bars have gone beyond just pouring shots: The Passenger’s Tom Brown put his Old Fashioned on tap when the bar ran out of Fernet. (It has since gone back.) Meanwhile, Sergi added another spirits-only tap at Jack Rose that dispenses pre-mixed cocktails. First up was a classically sweet Negroni; up next is an Old Fitzgerald Manhattan, which has been aging for four months in glass jars with staves from used whiskey barrels. (The wood imparts a richer, more mellow flavor to the whiskey over time.)

Sergi says the cocktails are kept cold and are sealed to keep out carbon dioxide. Liquid inside is frequently agitated to ensure it stays well mixed.

The taps have been such a success that Jack Rose is adding two more, including one that allows for carbonated drinks. Sergi joked about putting a vodka tonic on tap but said she thinks she’ll wind up with something classier — maybe a carbonated Jack Rose cocktail.

Of course, this is a novelty, akin to getting your mai tai in a tiki mug instead of a clear glass; You’d be hard-pressed to pick the tap whiskey from one poured straight from the bottle. If anything, putting cocktails on tap takes away some of the fun of interacting with a bartender — ordering a martini extra dry, asking for a different whiskey in your Manhattan — and delivers a sterile experience akin to using a vending machine. (I concede that, at the kind of bar where everyone orders vodka sodas on a Friday night, putting basic cocktails on tap could greatly improve a bartender’s quality of life.)

At Jack Rose, Sergi says, there are a couple of advantages to the bar having whiskey on tap. First on the list is speed: If someone orders Willett during the weekend rush, bartenders don’t have to find the bottle, climb up a rolling ladder to grab it, bring the bottle down, pour and then repeat the process in reverse. They just put a glass under the tap, fill it and then move on to the next customer.

Bigger than that, though, is what Sergi calls education and the rest of us might call product placement.

“Guests see the tap and say, ‘Oh, what is that?’ It’s a chance to introduce Willett to someone who might otherwise order Maker’s Mark,” she said.

The prime benefit to customers: Because serving it is less labor-intensive for bartenders, the draft Willett sells for $9 per shot instead of the usual $11. (Draft cocktails cost $13 each, in line with everything else on the menu.)

Whether draft cocktails stick around or not, the underlying message is this: Good booze, served fast and cheap, is something we can all get behind.

 
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