On a Friday afternoon when the sun is out, the patio at Big Star, a popular tacos and whiskey joint in Chicago, is mobbed and the staff estimate they sell upward of 2,000 margaritas. Sure, there’s a solid selection of beers and the bartenders can whip up everything from boulevardiers to old-fashioneds, but nothing pairs with chips and guac quite like that salty-sweet concoction that helped Jimmy Buffet hang on.
Shaking that many drinks by hand is a good way to induce carpal tunnel syndrome, not to mention intolerably long lines at the bar, which is why the Big Star team switched to batching margaritas and storing them in 15.5-gallon barrels a while ago. When the restaurant opened up a massive new two-story location across from Wrigley Field, they realized even that wasn’t going to be enough to satisfy thirsty Cubs fans. At first they considered daisy-chaining a series of kegs, but that quickly proved ludicrously impractical. So they started thinking bigger. Much, much bigger.
“This is, to be frank, a fuckload of margarita,” says Certified Cicerone Adam Vavrick. “When I looked at how much we were making, the joke was why don’t we just build a brewery and use repurposed serving tanks? Then we started actually asking ourselves if we could get that done.”
This is, to be frank, a fuckload of margarita.”
Turning to the brewing world for a solution might be a logical leap for most people, but Vavrick, a certified cicerone, beer director at The Publican, and a self-professed craft beer nerd for more than a decade, isn’t most people.
“When you tell contractors that you’re building a bar and you’re building brite tanks, they look at you like you’re nuts,” says Laurent Lebec, brand beverage director at Big Star. It’s an understandable reaction, given that the brite tanks in question are five-barrel behemoths capable of holding 155 gallons of booze each. “Any time we’ve scaled, we’ve done it by taking logical steps. This one was like introducing a quantum physics element when you’re used to doing regular algebra.”
When dealing with a “fuckload” of any cocktail, batching quickly becomes the only sane solution. Individually mixing drinks by hand is all well and good when a mixologist has the time to shake and stir to his or her heart’s content, but when the joint is rammed, ratios tend to get sloppy and drinks get watery.
“In most venues, you see a stressed out bartender wielding 15 bottles and dropping shit everywhere. Whereas here, you get a fresh margarita that’s consistent,” Lebec says. “From being in service in that bar for half a decade, I certainly saw the dialogue around pre-assembly cocktails change over time.”
Despite a certain stigma against mass production, Lebec insists that working in high volumes doesn’t necessarily mean that quality has to suffer. While plenty of bars cut corners with bottled lime juice and saccharine, alien-green mixes loaded with chemicals, the staff at Big Star use nothing of the sort. Though they won’t divulge their recipe, it’s made with freshly squeezed lime juice, a hint of mezcal and orange Curaçao in lieu of cheaper triple sec because of the nuance it adds.
“There’s no difference whatsoever between a margarita made for your glass or for a tank,” Vavrick says. “We’re not fucking around. We’re not sacrificing anything.”
The end product might be more or less the same, but the process to get there is anything but. Not all ingredients scale up well in the same ratios and fresh ones like lime juice and pulp, can degrade in large quantities. No one wants a pile of lime sludge sitting in the bottom of their beverage.
“During the peak of the baseball season, you’re looking at 21 gallons of lime juice going into one tank,” says Arturo Rodarte, the bar prep supervisor at Big Star. To solve the problem, the team switched to an industrial juicer to process the 50 or 60 crates of limes they go through every day. The juicer removes most of the pulp, but the bar prep team goes the extra mile and strains it through brew bags just to be safe. “Short of having a centrifuge, this is about as complete a process as you can get.”
During the peak of the baseball season, you’re looking at 21 gallons of lime juice going into one tank.”
Since no one had really attempted this before, much of the team’s efforts were based on trial and error. Taking a queue from English and Scottish cask ales, Vavrick pushed for using nitrogen rather than CO2 or a combination to keep everything moving, while also acting as a placeholder that prevents the tanks from imploding. Ultimately, a one-horsepower pump was used to keep the vats of margarita from stagnating.
Although a small-scale test was done in advance, up until the day they opened at Wrigleyville to a crowd of thousands, no one was certain the system actually would work. It did and thanks to a little ingenuity and brewing technology, the bartenders can keep up with demand without breaking a sweat. The same set-up could theoretically streamline all sorts of cocktails, from Aperol spritzes to negronis. For now, the Big Star staff are sticking to their winning tequila formula.
“It’s kind of a game-changer,” Vavrick says. “I think we’re the first out of the gate here. We’ve planted our flag on top of Everest.”