There’s plenty of prep behind Maya’s draft cocktails | Photos by Ruta Smith

On Tap

Keeping pre-mixed cocktails available on draft can help a bar increase efficiency and manage consistency so well that it’s become somewhat of a nationwide trend. And some Charleston restaurants are following suit. But before a cocktail makes it to the tap, there is a mix of art and science behind the scenes to dial in the ratios and make sure the final product is balanced. Maya, Stems & Skins and Laurel have implemented systems for serving cocktails on tap, and gave City Paper the inside scoop on how it all comes together behind the bar.

Maya

Newly opened downtown, Maya is kicking off its cocktails-on-tap program with two classic Mexican cocktails — the margarita and paloma — that will keep up with its high-volume dining room and, hopefully, elevate guests’ experiences.

“We can focus more on the presentation of the cocktail and making it look nice,” said beverage director Matthew Van Xanten. “The time we would have spent pouring, shaking and serving the ingredients behind the bar is done scientifically and mathematically in the kitchen as part of our prep work – very similar to a chef making their chicken stock.”

When it comes time to prep, though, it’s not as simple as taking the ratios and scaling them up.

“We have a steward or porter shift, like a kitchen-prep shift. Their job is to cut and juice citrus and make the pre-batches,” he said. “Everyone has to do one of those shifts a week because the bartender needs to know what’s in that cocktail, even if they are just pulling a tap handle.”

The offerings also create an opportunity for collaboration between the kitchen and bar staff.

“If the kitchen is making some kind of bone broth, there’s no reason why we can’t infuse that bone broth into a gin,” Van Xanten said. “We can recycle and reuse what the kitchen is using and marry those flavors together – we save the rinds of our citrus and we’re making a Mexican mixed citrus limoncello, if you will, with grapefruit, orange, lemon, lime.”

“The goal with the cocktails-on-tap program, as of right now, is to bring all or almost all of our eight house cocktails into [it] at the end of the holiday season, going into 2022.”

Stems & Skins 

The negroni has been having a big moment, and Stems & Skins in Park Circle mixes it up by offering it on tap with a slight variation on the Florentine classic. The cocktail is traditionally made with equal parts gin, Campari and vermouth — a simple, but complex-tasting drink. 

Stems & Skins changes one component to stand out from the rest.

“The unique part about [our] negroni is that we use Cappelletti, which is a red bitter from Northern Italy,” co-owner Matt Tunstall said. “It’s the same family as Campari but it’s wine-based instead of distillate-based. It’s a little less bitter and more floral [and] also less viscous. 

“It’s lighter on its feet, which is why I enjoy it, especially in a hot climate like ours.”

But even in a three-ingredient cocktail, there’s room to improve on the original.

“Another component of a negroni that gets missed in a lot of places is quality vermouth,” he added. “We use a Spanish vermouth from Rioja. The high-quality vermouth adds to the complexity.”

The negroni is especially popular during Stems’ weekday 4-6 p.m. aperitivo hour, when guests can enjoy it for $6 instead of $10.

“The drink is built for an appetite-stimulating, mouth-watering pre-dinner vibe, but they’re delicious on any hot day in Charleston, for sure.”

In addition to the negroni, Stems & Skins offers its “Hardwired” shot on tap — a blend of Cynar (artichoke liqueur) and fernet amaro from Contrado, an Italian winery in Piedmont that makes sparkling wines and vermouths. 

According to Tunstall, fernet amaro is a less medicinal, much sweeter liqueur compared to the more popular fernet branca regularly tossed back at Charleston bars.

“You have the depth of the artichoke [and] the residual sugar from the liqueur and the fernet, [giving] a bittersweet play that’s a refreshing digestif.”

Stems & Skins’ draft negroni is slightly nontraditional, bringing bright, floral flavors

The bar actually planned to alternate availability of new creations with the shootable Hardwired and the go-to negroni, but both have become so popular among patrons that both remain on tap.

Stems & Skins also looks out for something casual drinkers might not be aware of: water dilution. From shaking, stirring or just sitting on the rocks, water is the unsung component for tasty cocktails.

“We actually [dilute] slightly in the keg, so the first sip is as similar to the last sip as possible. When they come out, they’re ready to taste how they are – you don’t have to wait for the ice to water it down.”

On-draft cocktails are a win-win, as far as Tunstall is concerned. They ensure a more consistent product, reduce waste and are faster to pour when the bar gets busy.

Laurel

At Laurel downtown, the on-tap offerings are inspired by owner/head chef Trae Wilson’s travels to Spain.

“It was 100 degrees outside in Barcelona and they had sangria on tap. I’ve never really been into sangria, but when you drink it and it’s 100 degrees, you realize why it’s so popular,” said Wilson. 

After purchasing Laurel’s Josper charcoal oven in Barcelona,  the seller also passed on a sangria recipe. With a small alteration from Wilson — swapping sugar with with local honey — it’s the recipe now used at Laurel.

Made using Spanish garnacha and blended with honey, liquors and fresh-squeezed oranges, the sangria is left to sit for 24-48 hours. Because it’s served on tap, the fruit you might usually see in sangria is strained out. Instead, bartenders finish it off with a simple citrus garnish.

Laurel’s draft sangria was inspired by the owner’s travels in Spain

“I don’t think the chunks of fruit is a Spanish thing, from what I saw, it was mainly orange slices,” Wilson added.

Along with red and white sangria on tap, Laurel also sells locally produced Sweatman’s All Natural sodas on tap to add variety to the cocktail menu. The sodas’ complexities help make the cocktail-building process as easy as combining two ingredients, like the “Pear & Bourbon,” a combination of bourbon and Sweatman’s pear cardamom soda. 

And look for more coming to the bar at Laurel soon. Wilson said he’s planning a negroni fino and a Spanish play on the venerable Manhattan.