Vintage soda machine from the 1960s retrofit to carry prebatched cocktails at Existing Conditions in New York City (image: Eric Medsker)
Vending machines have been around since the 1880s. Since that time, they’ve been used to dispense everything from stamps to gumballs, French fries to cupcakes. Their presence has become quite familiar in break rooms and grocery stores. But recently, they’ve been showing up in a new venue altogether: your local bar. Wine, beer, even cocktails are now getting the automated treatment. Is this the wave of the future or just a passing fad?
Before alcoholic vending machines could become a reality, a few legal hurdles had to be cleared. In Connecticut, for example, self-serve dispensers were illegal until state representative David Arconti introduced legislation in 2016, opening the door for what he called “self-pouring technology.” It passed by a wide margin.
In many states, there’s nothing explicitly preventing automated alcohol, so long as they’re contained in bars already licensed to serve booze. New York City bar star Don Lee took advantage of this reality at Existing Conditions in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He retrofit two vintage soda machines from the 1960s to carry prebatched cocktails. It started off as a way to appease crowds as they waited for a seat to open up at the full-service bar. But it immediately took on a life as its own as an Instagram star: #boozyvendingmachine.
Cinema Highball dispensed from a vending machine at Existing Conditions (image: Eric Medsker)
The sideshow wasn’t without complications, of course. His first challenge was to keep an eye on consumption. “We created custom coins so we can monitor who gets bottles and also so people can’t leave with them,” says Lee. The other challenge was a less expected one. “Millennials didn’t grow up with vending machines. So many of them don’t know how to use them.” Using a bottle opener, it turns out, is this generation’s equivalent of programming a VCR.
Although Existing Conditions’ trendsetting devices are decidedly low-tech, more advanced models are becoming the norm. BeerBox, as an example, couldn’t have existed 10 years ago. The airplane-cart-size unit—currently being used to dispense Bud Light at a handful of sports stadiums across the country—automatically opens your beer can for you. Without this feature, it would have been a nonstarter—most venues don’t allow unopened containers, as they could be used as projectiles.
Further, Anheuser-Busch is working with a tech company to integrate a blockchain-based identity app into BeerBox. It won’t be long before a scan of a QR code will serve as proof of legal drinking age.
Moët & Chandon vending machine at The Crack Shack (image: Brad Japhe)
Thanks to Moët & Chandon, a series of Champagne vending machines have sprouted up across the nightlife landscape. The famed French producer has branded its own unit, which holds up to 320 mini-bottles. They’re available in high-volume markets such as New Orleans, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. At Richard Blais’ Crack Shack in L.A.’s Century City, the fast-casual dining outlet uses the machine to combine that most classic of high/low combos: Champagne and fried chicken.
For dessert, Hoot the Redeemer in Edinburgh dispenses a wide range of boozy ice cream out of its vending machine. For £4 ($5.30) bargoers at the 1950s-era funfair throwback can enjoy pre-packaged treats including bourbon berry pie and a lavender milk bottle spiked with Reyka vodka. It’s enough to make you feel like a kid in a candy store.
But not everyone is climbing aboard the boozy vending machine bandwagon. Most of the 34 lawmakers opposing the Connecticut measure did so on the grounds that it could result in job loss for bartenders. And then there are those that think it’s all just an overblown gag.
Boozy ice cream vending machine at Hoot the Redeemer
“These things are 100 percent novelty, and anyone who begs to differ is full of shit,” says Dustin Drankiewicz, the bar owner of The Swill Inn in Chicago. “I’ve seen the machines at bigger brand events, where it’s not so much about hospitality as it is about how to keep people talking about what was there that was so ‘outside the box.’ But it makes zero sense in a bar. Let’s not embrace the idea that one day we’re all gonna be replaced by robotics.”
In his sarcasm there is, of course, a kernel of truth. Kiosks and screens are eroding the foundation of hospitality: face-to-face interaction. Boozy vending machines are, perhaps, merely a mechanism for enjoying that inevitable ride. If we are fated to be overtaken by robots, let’s hope they’re still willing to serve us prebatched cocktails and the occasional split of Champagne. We should be so lucky.