Photo by Jay Paul
A conversation with Jay Bayer, owner and general manager of Jackson Ward's Saison, is always a good time. His blend of humility and graciousness belies the fact that he seems to have tapped a deep well of laboratory-level experimentation and creativity in the drink world, alongside beverage directors Justin Ayotte and Sara Kerfoot, and is doing things no one else in Richmond is doing. Like … cocktails on draft. The process: blending the proportionate ingredients, sealing them in a cask, carbonating (if the drink should be fizzy) and then tapping. But why?
BC: What draft cocktails has Saison offered thus far?
JB: So far, Saison has offered a 10 Amaro Negroni (10 amari, or bitter Italian liqueurs, gin, sweet vermouth); a carbonated mezcal mule (mezcal, tequila, lime juice, passion fruit purée); an Helado Negroni (Nicaraguan rum, Campari, Amaro Averna and cold-brewed coffee); and a lightly carbonated Boulevardier (bourbon, Campari, sweet vermouth).
BC: Which one has worked best and why?
JB: I think the 10 Amaro Negroni is the best we've done yet. It was really complex, but it still had a balance of booze, bitterness and sweetness that you try to create in a drink like the Negroni. That's a drink that we wouldn't be able to make without the draft system as a tool. It's a 12-ingredient drink. Trying to measure proper proportions during service would require an army of spoons and eyedroppers. Draft makes that drink viable. I really like the drink we call the Helado Negroni, also — it was a drink we first did in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based electro-pop artist Helado Negro. We added a bit of cold-brew coffee to play with the rum and bittering elements. Because it had a non-alcoholic element in a stirred drink (usually all booze), it was a perfect candidate for being a draft cocktail.
BC: Any plans for new ones in the future that you're psyched about?
JB: We are pretty stoked for a couple of sherry cocktails and some carbonated low-alcohol-volume drinks. Justin, Sara and I are trying to create a draft cocktail program that utilizes the draft system as a tool and not just a PR gimmick. Draft, as a tool, allows you to control and alter carbonation, guarantee a consistent and pre-determined dilution measure, pour at a consistent temperature and alter the total volume size of the drink, creating an opportunity for increased complexity.
BC: What has the crowd reaction to draft cocktails been like?
JB: People have been really into it. Especially when it's crazy busy and you have the opportunity to put a very well made drink into someone's hand without the two to three minutes it takes for each drink to be made. Given that no one else has been doing them yet, it has a kind of extra-cool factor as well.
BC: What inspired you to try it out?
JB: We wanted to do something new and different for the Richmond cocktail scene. Barrel-aged cocktails can be awesome, but we knew folks had already done them… We didn't just want to have a gimmick going though. So Sara, Justin and I sat down and talked about what draft offered that we could use to create something that we wouldn't otherwise be able to make.
BC: There's an industry debate about draft cocktails that I'm sure you're familiar with: quick, cost-effective with potential for greater depth of flavor vs. the value of time spent on crafting a fresh cocktail to order. What's your take on this?
JB: It is my job to get the perfect drink in my guest's hand as fast as possible. One of the biggest complaints about cocktail bars is that the drinks take so long to get made. … Draft is great for traditionally stirred drinks.