Craft on Draft at Tico

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“I just changed the keg” isn’t the sort of thing one typically hears when the subject is cocktails. Kegs are for beer. Cocktails are a matter of bottles, shakers, fresh ingredients, and the deft hands of a skilled bartender. And yet those were the very words Erin Surprenant spoke as she led me toward the bar at Tico, the hip, upscale Back Bay restaurant at which she is the general manager. This past Thursday, Tico hosted a pre-Valentine’s Day party, replete with drinks, complimentary appetizers, and elaborate floral bouquets. Now I enjoy VD as much as the next guy, but the event also served to showcase the latest addition to Tico’s cocktail menu – a Moscow Mule on draft.

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Tico isn’t the first Boston-area establishment to serve cocktails on tap. Respected bars like Alden & Harlow and Fairsted Kitchen have experimented with the technique, and it makes sense – the popularity of cocktails continues to soar, but labor-intensive drinks and a big crowd can be a challenging combination.

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Still, the notion of a cocktail stored in a keg and delivered via draft might invite a little skepticism. This great renaissance of craft cocktails has taught us to not only enjoy the drink in our glass but also to appreciate the process by which it got there. But as Erin explained to me, being efficient isn’t the same as taking shortcuts.

Such is the case with Tico’s Moscow Mule. It may flow easily from beneath its novel custom tap handle, but it’s the product of the same hard work and trial and error that accompanies any new cocktail recipe or variation of a classic.

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Tico starts by making its own ginger beer, with fresh ginger, and it’s unlike anything you’ll find in a bottle or can. That gets combined with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, widely considered the standard in an industry that tends to lean toward more colorful and flavorful spirits.

The result is one of the spiciest, most vibrant, most aromatic Moscow Mules I’ve ever had. The fresh ginger gives it an unexpected kick, but the cocktail remains refreshing and easy to drink.

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The Moscow Mule’s straightforward composition might make it an obvious choice for the tap, but Erin explained that making a cocktail in five-gallon batches has its own set of challenges, because it’s much harder to get the portions right with that kind of volume.

“The first batch was sugar water,” she admits with an eye roll.

That first batch may have suffered from some missteps, but it’s clear that Tico ironed out the kinks somewhere along the way. I saw plenty of customers try a sample and then order the full cocktail, which comes in a good-size Tito’s jar. Erin tells me that Tico first dabbled with draft cocktails at its other location in Washington, D.C., and while it was a hit in the nation’s capital, there was some hesitation about trying it in a city known for its craft cocktail scene. But as long as the people making the drinks know what they’re doing, it’s easy to have confidence in the final product, whether it’s from a bottle, a tap, or stirred over ice. And judging by the rest of Tico’s cocktail menu, they definitely know what they’re doing.

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Tico is known for its Latin-American fare, and it’s got the drinks to match. There’s a selection of craft margaritas, from traditional to one made with ghost-chili-infused tequila. The Mayahuel’s Garden is less intense that, but it’s still got a little heat with its grilled jalepeño-infused tequila, muddled orange and poblano pepper, agave nectar, and fresh lemon and lime juice.

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The Paloma is made with Exotico Reposado tequila and grapefruit juice. This understated classic is simple, refreshing, and pleasantly sour.

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Tico’s also offer a few impressive twists on some traditional cocktails, like the 23 Bulleit. This Manhattan/Old Fashioned-like drink features Bulleit bourbon, ginger maple, Cinzano sweet vermouth, and orange bitters.

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If you don’t hear much about Tico’s cocktails – and I admit, they rarely show up on my radar – that’s probably because the food program gets all the glory. So it goes when a restaurant’s owner/chef has achieved near-celebrity status. Chef Michael Schlow has been named Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, and a slew of other high-profile TV shows.

So even a cocktail-centric night like this would be incomplete with some of that award-winning cuisine. Tico treated us to some passed hors d’oeuvres, including chorizo tortilla Española, a pastrami and pickle mustard quesadilla, and spicy deviled eggs with Aleppo, crispy chicken skin, and hot pepper. All three were as good as they sound.

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I also got to try a few bites from the regular menu, starting with crispy manchego cheese. These little pillows of awesomeness had a perfectly crispy exterior, and a side of spicy pomegranate-honey sauce provided an earthy sweetness.

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The lamb tartare with avocado puree and poblano salsa was like a work of art. The flavors were wonderfully balanced, with the poblano salsa contributing some mild heat. Some people are naturally squeamish about anything “tartare,” but I have no such reservations (YOLO, etc.).

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And yet the little suckers on the octopus did briefly give me the creeps. But I pushed through and was happy I did. This rich, smoky dish of Spanish octopus was served with salsa veracruz, sautéed spinach, black garlic, and potatoes, and it was excellent.

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I’ve only sampled Tico’s wares, but I can see that the praise Schlow’s won is richly deserved. Amid all the accolades, it would be a mistake to overlook Tico’s drinks; they hold their own against food made by a top chef. It would also be hasty to dismiss a pre-made cocktail served via draft. It’s tempting to write the idea off as one that privileges efficiency over quality. But Tico’s draft Moscow Mule demonstrates how effectively it can be done. If bars are willing to hold themselves to the standard of using fresh ingredients and avoiding shortcuts, then whether your drink is handmade or simply hand-poured will be secondary to how good it tastes.

Address: 222 Berkeley Street, Boston

Website:http://www.ticoboston.com/

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