Kathy Casey on Beverage Service for Events: Trends and Best Practices
Batching on-tap cocktails, flavor dynamics, and more.
If hospitality is a realm in which operators constantly seek to offer whatever floats a guest’s boat, Kathy Casey is often a go-to pro in charting a course to a drink destination that is narrowly but dynamically defined.
Chef and mixologist Casey is owner of the Liquid Kitchen, an international agency specializing in creativity in food, beverage, and restaurant/hospitality concept consulting, product development, and menu development. Her clients include Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Raffles Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Holland America Cruise Line, and Norwegian Cruise Line as well as myriad chain restaurant brands, consumer food and beverage brands, and more.
Here, we catch up with Casey for her perspective on drink trends and beverage service for large groups, on the heels of the mid-2018 launch of the batched, on-tap cocktail program she and Liquid Kitchen created for Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Bliss ship.
Hotel F&B: What trends are you seeing as most prevalent in beverage service for events?
Casey: People are doing signature cocktails at large events, whether it be company meetings or weddings. I think that having a couple signatures, plus a Champagne, wine, and maybe beer, is the way to go. People are really embracing that. It’s so much easier, especially in hotels, than having a huge selection of cocktails and spirits—especially with labor becoming more challenged. The line moves a lot faster when you have fewer options. It’s getting those options that you have to coordinate with your group. Ask who your group is. If you’re focused on just a few things and do them really well, that’s the trick to it.
I recently did some cocktails for Beam Suntory for an event for the Marketing Executives Group (MEG) at the National Restaurant Show, at the Fairmont Chicago. We did three signature cocktails, and that’s really what everyone was drinking. We did a Sparkling RoséRita with Hornitos Cristalino Tequila, fresh lime, and organic agave, finished with Moet & Chandon rosé Champagne, with micro orchid on it. Then we did an Effen Great Blood Orange Mule with Effen Blood Orange vodka, lime elixir, fresh rosemary, and Q Ginger Beer, garnished with a blood orange crisp. And we did a Summer of ‘46 Manhattan with Maker’s Mark 46; Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth spiced with cinnamon, clove, blackberries, and lemon peel; with orange oil and a spiked Amarena cherry on top. Three different cocktails with really different flavor profiles—really something for everyone. And they looked really cool, in great glassware, so everybody was Instagramming. Making up a fun hashtag for your event is a great idea.
We pre-batched a little bit—fresh lime and organic agave in the Sparkling RoséRita, for example—but not everything. Just doing a little pre-batching works well.
Hotel F&B: Can you offer any do’s and don’ts regarding flavor profiles that work well or don’t work well for groups, when doing a limited number of signature drinks?
Casey: At that event, we did the Sparkling RoséRita. Margaritas are popular, but we did it on the drier side, so it wasn’t super-sweet. And we had a more spirit-forward cocktail with the Summer of ‘46 Manhattan. I don’t classify them as male or female, because that doesn’t pertain to the world anymore. I always have a profile that’s more spirit-forward and then something that is lighter or dry. If you go for a third cocktail, it’s good to go sweeter, like the Effen Great Blood Orange Mule. I always start with two, though, that are at opposite ends.
Hotel F&B: What are some of the most common challenges of executing handcrafted cocktails for group, and how has technology helped with that?
Casey: Especially in banquets, it’s about having the time and opportunity to train the bartenders on the cocktails before the event; that’s the biggest thing. You’re running, setting up your bar and all this stuff. It’s really important to do pre-shift training, whether in a hotel or offsite. Everyone should see the cocktail and make one so they’re familiar. Then have everyone who is on the floor taste it so you can talk about it. Then, I make everyone say the name of the cocktail and tell me how they are going to describe it—what the key points of the cocktail are.
Liquid Kitchen has a whole line of equipment to do cocktails on tap and kegs. We do our cocktails-on-tap programs, like we did for Norwegian Cruise Line, all with fresh, handcrafted ingredients. On our kegs, we have a whole training system on how to batch and make sure the measurements are double-checked. Our kegs are also self-agitating, which helps with settling of ingredients, such as heavier fruit juices. Having the opportunity to have the cocktails on tap—whether it’s a theater client or a cruise line or banquets in hotels—makes for fast service, but best of all, it makes for consistent quality.
I just opened a new airport restaurant called Rel’Lish, a burger lounge that HMS Host operates at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. We did three signature cocktails on tap, which each get some kind of fun, fresh finish. The Margarita has a choice of topping it with Grand Marnier or Ancho Reyes. We have a Wiki Rum Punch topped with dark rum. We use fun glassware. We also have the Northwest Berries & Bubbles. It’s vodka, lemon, and berry, topped with Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, with fresh berries on top. You can take those types of things and give them a twist. With cocktails on tap, it’s great to have a few base recipes you can switch up. Yes, it’s premade, but it’s handcrafted with all fresh ingredients.
Hotel F&B: Tell us about the batched cocktail program you created for Norwegian Cruise Line and what the goals were.
Casey: The original program that rolled out had a portable unit. They can roll it out for one of their special nighttime themed parties. So, when guests are coming in, they can get a cocktail right away. They use it for the Cocktail of the Day often or to give people a drink when they are embarking. With the new Norwegian Bliss, there are a couple permanent cocktails on tap in all their main bars. We’ve also converted a few of the beer lines over to cocktails on tap.
Hotel F&B: Beyond events and batching, what overall beverage trends are on your radar at the moment?
Casey: People are doing a lot more with vegetables, especially carrot and beet. And there’s a huge trend that I’ve been talking about for years, which is really offering some exciting non-alcoholic beverages. That’s very important on menus. There are people who might not drink for religious or dietary and health reasons. So, why shouldn’t there be something exciting to offer them? I hear all the time from my friends who don’t drink alcohol who say they’re out with their friends having beverages, and there’s nothing exciting for them to order. So, they’re having a cranberry and soda with a lime. But then they’re splitting the bill. I’ve heard a friend say, ‘I want a $10 NAB!’ And kids love NABs.
Hotel F&B: Are there any top-of-mind topics in the beverage world right now that you’re focused on?
Casey: Yes. There was a terrible trend for a long time, and whoever is still doing it should stop: cocktails with no garnishes. You eat with your eyes, and you drink with your eyes. I’ve been somewhere and paid $18 for a cocktail, and there’s no garnish. I know it’s handcrafted and beautiful, but let’s get back to some interesting items. I’m excited to see people having fun again with garnishes. Accessories make the outfit.
Norwegian Cruise Line features cocktails on-tap across its fleet. Kathy Casey and Liquid Kitchen crafted batched cocktail concepts for the Norwegian Bliss ship. Here’s what’s in the mix:
Blackberry Bourbon Smash
Muddled fresh blackberries, Bulleit bourbon, cranberry, and fresh lemon elixir.
Smoked Peach Margarita
1800 Reposado tequila, Gracias a Dios Mezcal, triple sec, peach puree, fresh lime, organic agave nectar, and a hibiscus salt rim.
Cool as a Cucumber
Tito’s vodka, Beefeater gin, St. Germain elderfl ower liqueur, cucumber, and fresh lemon soda.