When Tad Carducci was head bartender at a Times Square hotel bar, he remembers a European customer ordering a martini on the rocks. Vodka or gin? Carducci had asked.
The customer insisted: “No, no, no – martini on the rocks.” OK, Carducci thought, I’ll just take my pick. He poured the man a vodka martini on the rocks.
The man took a sip and put it down, unsatisfied. “Martini on the rocks!”
He was looking for Martini & Rossi vermouth on the rocks, Carducci realized. “I only made that mistake once,” he laughs.
In northern Spain, says Carducci, a founder of New York–based beverage consulting company Tippling Bros., bars have vermouth on tap that’s made in-house. “People have proprietary recipes.” Vermouth, he explains, is wine fortified with brandy and mixed with herbs and bitters. “It’s served with intention to be drunk on the rocks, as an aperitif, but also in cocktails,” he says, “or before a meal. It’s light and helps open the appetite.” But Americans don’t understand that it’s meant to be drunk on its own. “We just don’t have that culture.”
Carducci and his Tippling Bros. partner Paul Tanguay hope to change that at Chicago’s new Spanish-inspired restaurant and bar Tavernita – the newest baby from Mercadito Hospitality group, which also started River North Mexican hotspot Mercadito (108 W. Kinzie St.). House-made vermouth will be just one of the drinks the restaurant, set to open in September, will serve.
For research, Carducci and Tanguay traveled to Spain three times in the past year, where they were also inspired to create their own version of a gin and tonic, Spain’s “national cocktail,” Carducci says. Both Tavernita’s main bar and a small pintxos bar, Barcito, within the restaurant will serve house-made tonics and sodas.
They found recipes from the 1850s until now for different tonics and different syrups and elixirs, and “kind of tweaked them to our specifications,” says Carducci. “I find you can’t look forward without looking backwards.”
One of the recipes was from a small booklet a friend had given to Carducci a few years ago. It was “typed out on word processor booklet, stapled together, and handed it to me,” Carducci says, “as a gift.” The friend’s grandfather was head butler for “some high-ranking member of the royalty in England,” and the booklet was a transcription of all of his recipes, from wine to turpentine. It also had a couple of tonic recipes. “One of the main tonic recipes is based off of this,” Carducci says. “I think that’s from around 1915.”
But it’s not just what they’ll serve that’s unique. It’s also how they’re planning to serve it. Tavernita is going to offer a range of cocktails and wines—including sherry and Rioja wines, both native to Spain – on tap. As of July, Carducci says, “it’s still in the development phase.”
They’re planning to put everything from classic cocktails to Tavernita originals—as well as wine and beer—in six to eight three-gallon kegs, pressurized with different gases, and run them right through tap lines. “There’s a guy working for us whose job will be exclusively putting things together, making sure the quality is always maintained, cleaning the lines.” (He’s called the “head batch-ologist,” Carducci laughs.)
There will be two sangria-based kegs, white and red. But there’s room for mixology, even though it’s coming out of a tap. “There are still steps involved,” Carducci says, “It still needs to be shaken and presented. It’s just cut from five steps to two steps.” He offers an example: Somebody orders a red sangria-based drink. The sangria comes straight out of the tap. Then the bartender shakes it and pours it into a pretty glass, or takes the base and from there muddles in some herbs in season or fruits that look really good.
“The idea really originates in the way things are prepared in the kitchen,” says Mercadito Hospitality managing partner Alfredo Sandoval. “For example, we make all of our salsas every morning. We don’t make it a la minute. We make a big batch of salsa for the entire day.”
It’s not going to be easy to prep huge batches of the drinks in advance. “A lot of people think, if you’re doing a cocktail in a keg, take the recipe for one drink and multiply to reach three gallons and dump it in,” Carducci says. “But there’s a lot of science that goes into it.” With citrus, there has to be “at least a modicum of clarification,” removing all of the pulp and any solids. Organic material has the potential to gum up the tap lines.
Even though the prep work may be hard, the keg system takes the pressure off of the bartender, Carducci says. Sandoval projects serving 500–800 diners per night. When Mercadito Chicago first opened in 2009, whenever he walked in, Carducci remembers, “the bartenders wanted to stab me in the neck.” The menu had about 13 drinks, “all of which needed to be made by hand every step of the way.” But at Tavernita, when it’s five deep at the bar at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, the bartender can pull the tap and pour craft-made cocktails. It’s a system designed to serve more people, Carducci explains, and to keep the quality consistent.