At the height of the so-called cocktail revolution, when most every serious bartender wore sleeve garters and silken vests, we were taught to wait for our drinks. “It’s not like you’re getting a vodka soda; the good drinks take time,” we obedient cocktail fans told our friends knowingly as they wondered aloud whether that $16 Boulevardier would ever materialize. At the same time ingredient-focused new restaurants were eschewing French service and leaving tables nude of linens, bartenders had just begun to reclaim the pomp and circumstance of their profession, and with all those waxed mustaches and vodka soda jeers came real devotion behind the bar—not to mention some very delicious drinks.
Fast-forward a few economically disastrous years to an era in which innovations like on-tap cocktails have started to show up behind top bars. “Someone once said to me, ‘I want what comes after the revolution,’” says Derek Brown, owner of the Passenger and the Columbia Room. In other words, how do bars put out drinks that are just as good as those bespoke concoctions, but faster, with less fanfare, and—given the recession that just won’t quit—cheaper, too? And how can you bring the quality of cocktails at craft bars to less-formal settings?
Answering these questions is the aim of Brown’s new company, Brigade. Their first project is a gin and tonic in a keg—an on-tap concoction that requires no measuring, stirring, or shaking. Whoever is manning the bar simply pours it over ice. On-tap drinks have popped up in bars from New York to San Francisco, and Brown traveled with Columbia Room alum JP Fetherston to see how (and how well) those bars were pulling it off. They learned that most establishments hire an outside consultant to install the systems, then find themselves out of luck if something breaks down during service. So they brought local homebrewer John Burke onboard to help them figure out the hard science. This approach likely made perfect sense to the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns the Red Apron Butcher in Union Market—the only place you will find the G&T. Owner Michael Babin has an uncommonly DIY approach to his eateries—everything from design to public relations is done in house. Recently, he even built a commissary behind the market where butcher Nathan Anda can break down whole animals and distribute meat to NRG restaurants around Washington.
Another collaborator on the aptly named Brigade is New Columbia Distillers. Co-owner John Uselton says he’d been working informally with Brown and Fetherston for months, and when the idea of the on-tap drink came up, he knew Fetherston would be able to nail a custom tonic to complement the herbaceous Green Hat Gin. Fetherston experimented with soda for several months, eventually landing on a recipe with sage and green apple to work with Green Hat’s juniper, sage, and celery seed notes. The drink costs $9—about two-thirds of what you might expect to pay at a craft cocktail bar.
Brigade shares space with 12 beer taps behind Red Apron’s small bar. Poured into a glass, it starts out foamy but settles quickly and retains a rim of bubbles even when sipped slowly. There is a light fizz on the palate that offsets the bitter funk of Fetherston’s tonic. Achieving this balance is not easy, says Burke, who broke out his old physics textbooks in order to tackle the technical aspects of achieving a stable product with proper carbonation to create the desired (with apologies for the expression) “mouthfeel.”
The appeal for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group is, of course, being able to offer a perfect cocktail at a tiny outlet where hiring a well-trained craft bartender isn’t really feasible. There’s also a sense of synchronicity with NRG’s focus on on-tap beer innovations, on display at 14th Street bar ChurchKey and the soon-to-debut Navy Yard brewery Bluejacket. Fetherston is currently working with Anda to create an amaro—a bitter digestif to wash down the meaty offerings housed in Anda’s display case. (When drinking Brigade, Anda suggests a healthy slab of Red Apron’s liverwurst.) The drink makes its official debut on Friday, April 5. While it was designed with informality in mind, Brown does have one warning about the kegged G&T: “It’s really not good for keg stands.”