Have you ever tried a cocktail that tasted like lasagna? Dan Magro has. On his Instagram account, the cocktail content creator and author of “Suck it Up: Extraordinary Cocktails for Everyday People” posts Reels of himself taste-testing AI-generated cocktail recipes. In a video posted March 2, he shook up a Bloody Mary-like concoction consisting of vodka, tomato juice, balsamic glaze, Worcestershire sauce, basil syrup, and salt and pepper, served on the rocks and garnished with an uncooked lasagna noodle. “Oh great, it looks like sh*t,” Magro says. But the story doesn’t end there. “Wait a minute… Why does this work?!”
Looking like sh*t but kind of working is a good summation of humanity’s early forays using the artificial intelligence toys — or terrors? — that have been unleashed upon us. “I seldom use the first thing it throws out. I have to tweak and re-ask my question before I get something usable,” Magro says.
While Magro’s ChatGPT cocktails are meant to be entertaining, he recognizes the broader applications represented as a result. “I can see someone asking it to create a cocktail menu using seasonal ingredients and getting a ton of information they could then use to experiment and test instead of simply staring at a blank page and whipping up all of this information from scratch,” he says.
It’s not hard to give it a try for yourself. In a quick sequence beginning with my request for a Negroni riff and culminating with an ask for an award-winning cocktail, ChatGPT performed a series of pretty successful cocktail-generating machinations. It came up with a Sparkling Citrus Negroni — name included — using gin, Aperol, grapefruit juice, elderflower liqueur, and Prosecco, and then worked through a few refinements and renditions at my behest, coming up with a Bitter Citrus Twist and Strawberry Bliss Negroni along the way. The AI chatbot ended on the competition-ready Strawberry Elixir Negroni, using ingredients such as “premium craft gin,” edible flowers, “large and clear” ice cubes, homemade strawberry syrup, and strawberry-infused sweet vermouth.
Sure, “my” Strawberry Elixir Negroni wouldn’t win Diageo World Class or Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender, but for the vast majority of at-home drinkers? It would win the potluck dinner, that’s for certain.
AI Isn’t Coming to Your Favorite Bar… It’s Already There
Instagram cocktail creations and home concoctions pursued on a whim haven’t been the only AI intrusions into the bar world. For instance, the internationally renowned bartender Moe Aljaff posted what he called the first AI-generated bar pop-up flier when Millie Tang came into Schmuck Or Die’s Miami residency for a guest shift. AI image generation has popped up at other pop-ups, too. “At our bar, Expo, my partner has very cleverly used Midjourney to develop imagery to promote events at the bar, and that’s been incredibly successful,” says Lindsey Johnson, founder and CEO of Lush Life Productions.
At Back Bar USA, a consulting and marketing agency in the hospitality and beverage industries, Tim Haughinberry says he’s used AI to generate menu descriptions as well as presentations. Christopher Lowder, co-founder of concept development and hospitality consultancy Lowder Tascarella Hospitality, says his firm uses AI every day for a variety of project development and administrative tasks, such as venue design, social media copy, staff training material, and event planning.
Bar owner Erick Castro says AI generates the captions for new episodes of his popular “Bartender at Large” podcast, and hosted a segment where he fixed slipshod cocktails that ChatGPT generated. While he’s dipped his toes into the water, he’s erring on the side of caution, if not disdain. “There is a lot of scary stuff there, because in the past we all thought that robots were going to do the tasks of drudgery in life, but instead they are doing all of the cool sh*t that we aspire to,” he says. “It is super messed up, but I don’t know if there is a solution.”
Such negative sentiments can be found among others in the community as well, and some are more vehement than others. “AI cannot generate anything a human couldn’t, and if you cannot communicate what you’re selling, and why you’re selling it, you shouldn’t be selling it,” says Nate Dobson, the head bartender of Banzarbar in Freemans Restaurant. “If you don’t have the understanding of a market to be able to curate a menu for that market, you should not be working in that market.”
“Basically, we look at AI as a tool over here. When we can free up our time in organizing lists and parsing spreadsheets, we’re grateful for the break.”
Dobson sees this as part and parcel of several preexisting, systemic problems. There’s the good old fashioned undervaluing of human labor and drive to maximize short-term profits, and then there’s the infamous “move fast and break things” corporate approach to technology. “As someone who sits at the intersection of creative entertainment and hospitality, I’m very much not a fan of the way that large language models are being marketed towards executives of every industry by Silicon Valley,” they say.
When Dobson looks at AI, though, they see a machine putting on a performance of intelligence by stringing together bits and pieces of the vast, otherwise un-collated world wide web of information. “AI will not be able to connect the dots on, say, selling a historic German digestif as a shot liquor for metalheads, or pairing it with energy drinks, nor could it imagine connecting unmarketable eau de vie with a hip hop sponsor and marketing it as vodka to create a multi-billion dollar brand,” they say. Ring any bells?
Should AI Be Used in Bars?
There are others in the field who have found AI beneficial, though, with the most common refrain being that the specific application is what matters most. Laura Unterberg, beverage director of The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club in East Nashville, Tenn., says she doesn’t envision using AI to generate recipes, but she’s found other uses, such as “phenomenal” translations: “We just held a bar pop-up in Paris and used ChatGPT to accurately translate our menu,” Unterberg says. “It not only accounted for the nuances of slang in modern French, but helped accurately describe some of the more esoteric ingredients we use.”
Johnson says that Lush Life uses ChatGPT in numerous ways on a regular basis, including brainstorming ideas for Portland Cocktail Week. “But while we are using this technology, we have placed some limitations on use and will not be using it to replace people — the idea is that if we can make the work easier and give our team back some time in the day, we’re happy,” she says. “Basically, we look at AI as a tool over here. When we can free up our time in organizing lists and parsing spreadsheets, we’re grateful for the break.”
“I received a believable — if horribly unbalanced — recipe, and it included a decent backstory, but it was extremely incorrect. It feels correct, though, which is ChatGPT’s main goal.”
Moving from behind the desk to back behind the bar, there’s the matter of intellectual property to consider. In a bar world already pretty rife with such issues, AI typically doesn’t offer citation or attribution to recipe creators, for instance. “With the exception of cocktails published in books, it’s already difficult to prove provenance and ownership of drink recipes,” Unterberg says. “Even in the highly likely circumstance that ChatGPT or another language boat provides the searcher with a cocktail that already exists, there would be no real recourse.”
For what it’s worth, I conducted a Google search at the time of this writing and there were no exact search results for the names of any of the four drinks ChatGPT served up to me, though “bitter citrus twist” appeared as an occasional tasting note. As for the techniques and ingredients used, strawberry infusions going into a Negroni are well-trodden ground at this point, though it’s usually the Campari and not the sweet vermouth receiving the berry injection. While there’s no transparency and scant traceability, there appeared to be no outright thievery and, as per Unterberg, good luck doing anything about it either way.
Dobson conducted their own test, asking ChatGPT for the recipes and creators of the Paper Plane and Naked and Famous. The language model proved up to the task, providing accurate specs while attributing the drinks to Sam Ross and Joaquín Simó. But after diving deeper with a more obscure ask, the results were less than satisfactory. “I received a believable — if horribly unbalanced — recipe, and it included a decent backstory, but it was extremely incorrect,” Dobson says. “It feels correct, though, which is ChatGPT’s main goal, to replicate the idea of communication so succinctly that you don’t notice it isn’t communicating at all.”
From Administration and Cocktail Generation to World Domination
In the current, mid-2023 iteration of publicly available artificial intelligence technology, most uses seem mild and benign. The reins are still in the hands of users, who control not only if they’re using AI at all, but in which ways.
Johnson, for instance, has drawn a line in cases where AI would potentially replace or reduce the need for employees, such as social media management. “We value the human voice and touch that makes our channels so unique,” she says. “We see AI as a tool to make the load a little lighter for the humans who work at Lush Life while getting better results.”
A thoughtful approach to using AI may therefore be along the lines of outsourcing entry-level administrative tasks. This is time-consuming work that doesn’t take much brainpower, life or job experience, or creative capabilities, but still needs to be done. Nobody signed up to make drinks in order to get to the really fun part of mining for inefficiencies during inventory analysis, even if every small business owner the world over has learned to accept the jack-of-all-trades, bootstrapping path to success.
“It feels like a marvelous efficiency tool, but it is not perfect; there are flaws, and you must be ready to identify and catch them. I couldn’t tell you how long it will take before AI improves and becomes even better, faster and more accurate, but my gut tells me it might be sooner rather than later.”
“AI is making everyone’s lives easier by eliminating low-level work, allowing everyone to spend more time and energy creating unique guest experiences and connecting with each other on a human level,” Lowder says. “The result is better teamwork, more community, and honestly higher- quality products, from the macro creative concept to the micro detail.”
Then there are what Magro refers to as his low-stakes personal applications sampling AI-generated cocktails purely for the giggles and online engagement. “It’s easy to find the whole thing entertaining, and I believe AI can be used as a tool to amplify and enhance the work of already brilliant bartenders and beverage directors,” he says. “Now, do I love that tech thought leaders and AI developers are coming out with stark warnings? No, it’s pretty foreboding.”
As the writer of this article, I’m not living in fear that AI would have penned — Keyboarded? Electric-coded? Algorithmed? — this particular take on its appearance in the bar world. Quite frankly, if it eliminates the need to author the type of often inane listicles otherwise demanded of us — “top six gin cocktails to drink on partial lunar eclipses in honor of International Partial Lunar Eclipse & Gin Day,” for example — that’s a trade I’m willing to make. For now, anyway.
“It feels like a marvelous efficiency tool, but it is not perfect; there are flaws, and you must be ready to identify and catch them,” Magro says. “I couldn’t tell you how long it will take before AI improves and becomes even better, faster and more accurate, but my gut tells me it might be sooner rather than later. Until then, we should probably learn how to work with it since it’s most likely here to stay.”
Maybe, though, each small step taken is one in the wrong direction. Are you an AI-generated glass half-full, or AI-generated glass half-empty, kind of person?
“Every time we remove the chaotic spark of humanity from hospitality, it becomes a more solidified and unchangeable reality,” Dobson says. “We remain one of the last public commons for people to engage with one another in person-to-person contact, only barely outside of the black box algorithms directing our connections. … Trying to not sound like an apocalyptic preacher about this is tough.”
AI-generated glass half-empty for Dobson, then.
Maybe we are all inevitably charging headfirst into the AI-generated demise of humanity. But sometimes a video about wacky computer-coded cocktails is fun. I wanted to add in a line here about slippery slopes, or something about ignorance and bliss, or even a Simpsons reference along the lines of I for one welcoming our new AI-generated overlords, but I called on ChatGPT to pinch hit, instead: “Rather than dwelling on the unknown, let’s embrace the fascinating journey ahead, shaking and stirring our way through new flavors and experiences.”
Damn, all right that was. Not bad. Maybe I am concerned — I sure could go for a strong lasagna cocktail right now to cope with this stress.
“I love testing AI-generated recipes with my audience on social media because it’s still very much an experiment for me,” Magro says. “Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t because no matter how fast AI is, it doesn’t have taste buds. It’s simply taking everything out there — published, posted, debated, and blogged — and compiling it at a record-fast rate to provide you with what it thinks you need. It’s scary, but also fascinating, and truly a wild time.”