The future of drinking is now.
Forget about what you’ve seen or heard about bartending robots: they’re not really about shilling overpriced, shoddily made drinks on cruise ships for marketing purposes, nor are they out to make the job of the human bartender obsolete. On the contrary, a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail this past summer called “Bartending Robots: Friend or Foe?” sought to prove to attendees that automated systems dispensing drinks can actually make the entire bar experience more interactive for guests.
What’s that? Faceless, nameless machines can personalize a night out for cocktails? Yes, indeed.
A few years ago, Jennifer Colliau (who co-facilitated the seminar and serves as beverage director at The Interval in San Francisco) began collaborating with St. George Spirits master distiller Lance Winters and President of Vices and head distiller Dave Smith (who also co-facilitated the seminar). Both worked with her to create 15 single-aromatic distillations that could be combined in countless different ratios to create botanical spirits. She then installed a Bartendro robot from Party Robotics, headquartered in San Luis Obispo, CA, to dispense them.
But the gin-bot doesn’t shake and serve while the barkeep watches on, nor is it like one of those enomatic machines into which a debit card is inserted for serve-your-own wine pours. There would just be too many logistical considerations for that, Colliau says, including preventing over serving, as well as the logistics of determining proof of age via an ID or retina scan. “There is just a lot of unwieldy stuff with that,” she says.
Guests at The Interval peruse the menu and decide on the aroma and flavor makeup of a MYO spirit, the bartender programs the robot accordingly, and it blends the right ratio from its position behind the bar. The bartender then serves the gin (or botanical vodka, if the guest doesn’t add juniper) in a cocktail. “It lets people into the process, under the hood,” Smith says. “Only those who blend spirits really got to do that before.”
The robot, Colliau says, is pretty much like any other tool behind the bar, whether it be a blender or dishwasher. “We realized that making a great dispensing robot is good to move it to the back bar and make the front of service better,” declares Alexander Rose, a futurist who serves as the executive director of The Interval.
So what happens if you order a custom-made beverage and just don’t like it? “If they picked it themselves, it’s trickier,” she admits. Recipes and guidelines, as well as a well-trained staff, are helping with that. “This is an exercise in restraint, not in how many things I can put in,” adds Smith.
Pierre Michael, co-founder and CEO of Party Robotics which creates the Bartendro, started thinking about cocktail robots around ten years ago. (After all, the erstwhile engineer did used to work at Roomba, the company that produces robotic vacuum cleaners.) He toyed around with a robot that grabbed him a beer from the refrigerator, tweaked a water cooler for a Jesus-lookalike friend’s birthday so that it dispensed wine instead, and tried to make a contraption to dispense oatmeal cookie shots (it turned out to be a disgusting mess).
The main challenges with anything automated that dispenses liquids are cleanliness, hygiene, and potential spoilage and contamination. Michael solved those issues in an unlikely place, via a medical device called a peristaltic pump. In this technology (named for the process the gastrointestinal tract uses to transport food from the esophagus to the stomach), a roller-filled rotor pinches closed part of a flexible tube located inside a circular pump casing, moving the liquid through it. Because the liquid only touches the tubing, maintenance is a breeze, and ingredients can be flushed out simply with warm water and a sanitizer solution. “It’s also very precise, dispensing a set volume no matter how much is in the container, Michael says. (The Bartendro touts accuracy to 1 milliliter). In other words, it’s perfect for exact cocktail measurement ratios.
But if you’re still not convinced that robots aren’t going to replace your friendly neighborhood bartender, Michael offers up a sobering realization. “We think of robots as taking away jobs,” he admits. “Everything is getting smarter, but if you’ve ever interacted with robots, you know that they fail all the time.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.