Craft cocktails are the star attraction at Federal Hill's new Bookmakers Cocktail Club, which makes its own bitters, syrups and tonics and carries 100 types of whiskey. Bartenders whip up 15 specialty cocktails with poetic names like What Is and What Should Never Be, a blend of cognac, rum, cinnamon, creme de peche, lemon and raisins soaked in Scotch whisky.
But when the staff has to pour as many as 500 drinks on a busy weekend night, it helps to have a shortcut: cocktails served on tap.
In October, Bookmakers dedicated one of its six beer-tap lines to a rotating cocktail, recently a Boulevardier with rye whiskey, Campari and sweet vermouth, says head bartender Ryan Sparks. And a drink called the Uppercut, a blend of rye, white vermouth, amaro bitters and orange Curacao, is dispensed from the spigot of an oak barrel.
"It puts less stress on the bartenders" says Sparks. "A lot of my cocktails are time-consuming. If you can get drinks out faster, you make customers wait a little less."
Barcocina in Fells Point serves two cocktails on tap, a margarita (its most popular drink) and a spin on the Moscow mule with cranberry vodka, lime juice and ginger beer.
Of Love and Regret, Fork & Wrench, B&O American Brasserie and Wit & Wisdom all serve cocktails from barrels that sit atop the bar and are poured from a spigot.
Warehouse 518 in Mount Vernon (formerly Creme Restaurant and Lounge) will serve a tequila-based barrel-cocktail in another month or so and might institute a draft system down the road, says beverage director Pat Raley.
Cocktails are just the next evolution in the libations-on-tap trend. Several restaurants, including Columbia's Aida Bistro &Wine Bar and Red Red Wine Bar in Annapolis, already serve wine on tap. And the Valley Inn in Brooklandville serves Prosecco on tap at its new Oyster Bar.
Serving drinks on tap allows bartenders to work faster while giving customers something new to talk about. Each drink also tastes the same and doesn't vary according to the skill of the bartender. Keeping drinks in oak barrels adds a new depth of flavor to drinks, cocktail connoisseurs say.
Bartenders say they're not cheating customers out of true craft cocktails because they're using fresh ingredients and top-shelf liquors. Many of the bars that serve drinks on tap are known for using fresh ingredients and staying on top of the latest trends.
But some say the trend is a passing fad that doesn't give the customers the quintessential craft-cocktail experience of watching as your bartender stirs exotic ingredients into a drink.
John Reusing, owner of the bar Bad Decisions in Fells Point, used to serve bitters on draft until his draft system died in July. Until he can come up with the $12,000 to replace it, he won't offer anything on draft — not even beer. He remains a skeptic when it comes to draft cocktails.
"It's the easy way out," he said. "I'd rather my customer see their drink made in front of them."
But Brendan Dorr, head bartender at B&O American Brasserie and president of the Baltimore Bartenders Guild, doesn't agree.
"Naysayers say it's not craft bartending anymore," Dorr says. "It totally is."
The idea of premixing cocktails to save time has been around since at least the mid-1800s, says Gaz Regan, a cocktail columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and a founder of the Institute for Mindful Bartending. In modern times, the idea has sprouted throughout the United States in the past five years as cocktails have become more popular and more complicated.
"The easier you can make it for a bartender, the more money goes in the register," Regan says.
Draft cocktails are blended ahead of time and poured into a keg that's connected to a tap, just like beer. Those in a barrel are aged anywhere from two weeks to a year.
Barrel-aged cocktails are typically strained over an ice cube or served on the rocks to get them chilled. Bartenders give the barrels a good stir and taste every once in a while until it reaches its optimal flavor.
The rye whiskey in a Manhattan takes on a caramelized effect after sitting in a barrel, which lends itself well to the fall, says Of Love and Regret co-owner Leigh Philipkosky. "It changes the taste of the cocktail completely," she says.
Bartenders generally agree that there are limitations to a draft system. They advise against using citrus and other ingredients that can quickly oxidize, unless the establishment is doing a very high volume and frequently makes a new batch.
Because of their novelty, draft cocktails are a good way to pique the interest of a cocktail neophyte, says Nikki Davidson, a Mount Vernon resident and author of the Cocktail Crafty blog. She says she loves how classic drinks become both sweeter and earthier after they've aged in a barrel. She has also enjoyed Bookmakers' draft Boulevardier, saying it was "delicious and well balanced" and that she couldn't tell the difference between the draft version and a one made the old-fashioned way.
The places that now offer draft cocktails are using quality ingredients, but as the trend becomes more popular, Davidson says she worries that some bars might latch on to the trend without thinking too much about the quality of what they're serving.
"A lot of places on trend with it are places that use fresh ingredients and focus on the recipe," she says "As it becomes more popular, you might see some copycats."