Are Bartending Robots the Future? Or Are They Just Another Fad?

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Bartendro by Party Robotics at The Interval (image: Jennifer Mitchell)

A few years ago, Royal Caribbean announced it was offering a Bionic Bar on its monster cruise ship Harmony of the Seas. YouTube videos showed faceless automatons shaking and serving via technology that seemed to be more about marketing spectacle than crafting legit cocktails. But is this what the future of mixology is really about? A seminar at this past July’s Tales of the Cocktail, the annual booze conference held each year in New Orleans, says no.

“People don’t go to bars as much for the cocktails as we think they do,” says Jennifer Colliau, the co-facilitator of the seminar “Bartending Robots: Friend or Foe?” Colliau installed a gin-bot at The Interval bar in San Francisco where she serves as beverage director. “We provide a lovely experience and conversation.”

Every robot, she says, still has to have a human in front of them to hold the cup, garnish it and hand it to the customer. In other words, a drink-slinging robot is basically no different than a dishwasher, soda gun, blender or any other tool or appliance that helps bartenders do their job faster, better and more efficiently.

Gin-bot at The Interval

Bartending robots aren’t exactly new. Party Robotics co-founder and CEO Pierre Michael got wind of Robotexotica, an annual cocktail robotics conference and festival in Vienna that launched in 1999. It has been known to debut some pretty crazy projects, including a Mojito-making Rube Goldberg machine, and a laser tag game during which players received a squirt of booze in their mouths when they hit another player and a dose of lemon juice when they sustained a virtual bullet. “People were making wild stuff, and we wanted to be part of that,” he says.

Futurist Alexander Rose serves as the executive director The Interval in its entirety—a nonprofit organization that encompasses the bar, a café, a museum and The Long Now Foundation to foster long-term thinking. He saw some clever machines at BarBot, a cocktail robotics trade show in San Francisco. There, robots served cocktails out of everything from Legos and rockets to breast pumps and squirt guns, and the philosophy was one of creative collaboration.

Pierre Michael, Dave Smith and Jennifer Colliau, from left

Rose and a friend started building cocktail robots for fun, including one aptly dubbed the Manhattan Project. They eventually realized it made more sense to move a dispensing robot to the back bar, which ends up making the front of service better.

Michael, who worked for iRobot (the company that produces the Roomba), started thinking about cocktail robots about 10 years ago. He designed one that retrieved a beer from the fridge, retooled a water cooler so it literally turned water into wine for a long-haired friend’s birthday party, and created an automated system to pour the ingredients for an oatmeal cookie shot. New to cocktails, he learned to work with valves, sensors and liquid flow, how to compensate if a container is almost full or empty and how density and viscosity affect flow rate.

Single-aromatic distillates to be dispensed by the Bartendro

One of the problems with cocktail robotics is that the method via which liquids are dispensed can be messy, difficult to clean and prone to bacterial spoilage and contamination. Michael actually found a solution for these problems in the medical field.

Peristaltic pumps—named after the process the gastrointestinal tract uses to flow food from the esophagus to the stomach—move fluids through a flexible tube inside a circular pump casing. A roller-filled rotor pinches close part of the tube, forcing the liquid to move through it.

“The liquid only comes in contact with the tubing, so it’s very easy to clean,” says Michael. “It’s also very precise, dispensing a set volume no matter how much is in the container.” Because of them, the Bartendro requires minimal upkeep. Perishable ingredients are flushed out with a warm water and sanitizer solution, and special bottle toppers keep out fruit flies and minimize evaporative loss.

Single-aromatic distillates to be dispensed by the Bartendro

Inspired by the 27 botanicals individually distilled in Reisetbauer Blue gin from Austria, Colliau worked with St. George Spirits master distiller Lance Winters and president of vices and head distiller Dave Smith to craft 15 single-aromatic distillations for guests wanting a DIY spirit and installed a Bartendro robot from Party Robotics to dispense them. It’s set behind the bar, so after a guest decides on the aroma and flavor profile they’re looking for, the bartender actually serves the gin (or botanical vodka).

Of course, customer satisfaction when you’re dealing with MYO booze can be a little awkward. “If a guest orders a drink and they don’t like it, they send it back,” says Colliau. “But if they picked it themselves, it’s trickier.” The staff is still trying to figure that part out by creating recipes and guidelines. Cucumber, for example, is a very popular botanical that requires a light touch so it doesn’t completely overwhelm the final spirit. “What we learned is this an exercise in restraint, not in how many things I can put in,” says Smith.

In the end, bartending robots are looking to give the same thing that their human counterparts are: a killer cocktail experience. As Michael puts it, “bartenders provide a lot of value to customers in many ways that a robot will not be able to compete with anytime soon.”

Series & Type: Trends
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