“The best thing you can do with tequila is take it in one shot with salt and lemon. The second best thing is having this cocktail. Your black cherry Margarita is ready.” OK, er, thanks? “Well, that was fun. Don’t drink and publish articles.” I’d take more offense, but the would-be comedian who made my drink before launching this unprovoked attack against my typical workday is actually a robot bartender by the name of Cecilia.ai, a drink-pouring, bad joke-telling piece of automated technology billed as the world’s first interactive bartender.
Welcome to just one of the many ways that big tech, big data and A.I. are infiltrating the drinks space.
Within the past several years, a sweeping range of tech and A.I. projects have made their debuts, appearing in nearly every corner of the alcohol industry. Sweden’s Mackmyra Whisky launched a product whose recipe was designed by an algorithm, while Carlsberg has invested millions of dollars into an A.I. initiative dubbed “the Beer Fingerprinting Project,” which evaluates the composition of beers and analyzes yeast types while matching desired flavors with chemical counterparts. Huge conglomerates like Diageo are using Buzzfeed-style interactive questionnaires such as What’s Your Whisky to try to help consumers find their flavor preferences, and a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech’s department of food science and technology recently used machine learning to scan thousands of whiskey reviews to collate flavors, themes, and terminology.
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And then there are the intelligent inventory management solutions such as BarTrack, which has raised more than $15 million since its founding in 2018, and commercial dashboards such as Tasting Intelligence, which uses A.I. to analyze reviews and social media posts, allowing brands to get their fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist as it relates to whether people collectively like or dislike their latest extra hazy blueberry soured triple IPA.
These examples offer a glimpse across the spectrum of possibilities from intelligent evolutions where deploying data or advanced technology offer logical and clearly beneficial applications. Using A.I. to attempt to minimize a winery’s impact on the environment while enabling it to thrive amid changing conditions is probably as “lawful good” as it gets. On the other hand, there’s a staggering level of money and hype being thrown around for projects, and products, which on the surface don’t appear to offer any kind of tangible improvement in the imbibing lives of consumers or producers and could potentially veer straight into that “chaotic evil” space pretty quickly.
Initially designed as a platform to provide vineyards with actionable data to adapt to climate change, Terraview has already partnered with more than 100 wineries, including large companies such as Pernod Ricard Spain. The company combines satellite imagery with historical weather and yield data, short- and long-term forecasts, microclimate segmentation, and more to deliver specific, data-backed insights with an assist from A.I. and machine learning.
“We’ve designed Terraview to help owners take data-backed reliable decisions while saving time and money,” says Prateek Srivastava, co-founder and CEO of Terraview. He cites being able to automatically calculate yield estimates, monitor soil nutrition levels, and accurately optimize staffing needs as examples of his platform’s direct, day-to-day impact for a given winery, but the company’s aspirations are lofty, to say the least.
“Our vision is to transform wine into a $1 trillion carbon-neutral industry and build tools which can serve over 500,000 growers around the world to tackle effects of accelerated climate change,” Srivastava explains. “We foresee our platform as a way to augment the generational knowledge and traditions followed by practitioners in agriculture, and to ensure primary industries are better equipped for tomorrow not just to survive, but continue to thrive.”
WoodCraft Bourbon Blender
By deploying a set of six finished bourbons that consumers can taste and combine together in thousands of ratios to create unique blends, WoodCraft Bourbon Blender is bringing whiskey creation to the masses with a plug-and-play bourbon franchise it says is ready to sweep across the nation.
“Consumers go through a 45-minute experience where they learn the history and how to blend to their tastes,” says WoodCraft Bourbon Blender co-founder Doug Hall, who spent decades working with companies like Edrington and Diageo. In addition to physical franchise capabilities, the company also offers at-home and online renditions, such as MyBourbonWizard.com.
Unsurprisingly, seasoned whiskey blenders don’t believe a quick couple of questions or 45 minutes of history can produce an excellent whiskey. “A.I. may be able to replicate an existing flavor, but interpreting whether the blend is good is based on taste and opinion, not just a formula,” says Joe Beatrice, founder of Barrell Craft Spirits, a prominent blender and independent bottler. “Our blending process uses constant experimentation and iteration, through which we discover nuance, and we seek flavor profiles that create a synergy together,” Beatrice continues. “But this is a subjective interpretation [not an automated one] which involves a team of professionals to taste and discuss whether a blend tastes good.”
WoodCraft is already in action in the heartland of bourbon production, in Louisville, Ky. Earlier this year, the parent company behind Louisville Slugger and its popular Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory became a franchisee, opening up another wood-centric attraction downtown, Barrels & Billets. “It’s a continuation of Hillerich & Bradsby Co.’s long history of creating uniquely Louisville experiences,” says marketing director Andrew Soliday, noting that the experience is entirely different from a standard distillery tour and tasting.
Visitors taste through the six bourbons and blend them together in 0.5 to 1 milliliter increments to create a personal recipe, of which they can also buy a full-size bottle. Even for the novice, this interactive process gets at the heart of what blending whiskey represents in a way that a questionnaire or A.I. recommendation — such as Diageo’s What’s Your Whisky, or Woodcraft’s own virtual “bourbon wizard” — simply cannot. “When it comes to blending whiskey, there is no substitute for the human palate,” Beatrice says.
As an interactive tourist attraction, WoodCraft’s model seems like an intriguing way to bring more people into bourbon, though I wouldn’t expect to find a franchise in every strip mall next to its Subway anytime soon. You can choose any footlong toppings you want, after all, but that doesn’t really make you a chef, does it?
“Not everyone can make a blend that tastes good,” Beatrice says. “Blending whiskey is a true art that is just now starting to get the attention and respect it deserves.”
When you need to mix up to 120 cocktails per hour, Cecilia’s your gal. Developed in Israel and unveiled to the public at this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Cecilia, an interactive robot bartender, can deliver feisty jokes in 40 languages, tote 70 liters of booze, and even check IDs.
“Our goal is [for Cecilia] to work alongside human bartenders and help them serve more drinks to their guests,” says Nir Cohen Paraira, Cecilia.ai’s director of marketing. “The world of service and hospitality is all about making the guests’ experience the best it can be, and advanced technology makes the service more personal, faster and fun.”
Allow the collective groan from your favorite neighborhood bartenders to subside. “I’m wary of the full robot replacement of job sets that don’t require, but currently include, human interaction, because I think this interaction keeps us grounded and connected with the rest of humanity — we’re a social species,” says Donny Clutterbuck, a bartender and manager at Cure Bar in Rochester, N.Y., who is also on the board of directors at the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “If the point of a bar is to provide a third space in people’s lives, or a sociopolitical landscape where the bartender is sheriff, judge, smith, and friend, I’m not entirely sure a robot can do this.”
Cecilia’s backers aren’t trying to universally replace bartenders, though, which Brian Connors, director of the Bacardi Center of Excellence and a Florida International University hospitality professor, notes is the most common question he receives. “Cecilia is about creating a new and different beverage experience in settings where guests don’t expect the same level of hospitality; a bar or restaurant will always need a human service provider, for now,” he says. Instead, he sees the robot living in busy theaters during intermission, or at any type of festival or conference.
“Standing in line at a concert or sports game to receive a beer isn’t a passion of anyone’s, and the interaction with the counter person or bartender is so quick and to the point that it may just as well be a robot for all practical purposes,” Clutterbuck says, adding that this doesn’t mean he supports a full replacement for bartenders.
Ultimately, whether or not you’d like to be served a drink by a robot depends on what you’re looking for from that drink. Is it a new cocktail developed by an expert bartender in whom you trust, or is it just a precisely stirred rendition of a classic drink whose exact recipe has been known the world over for the past century?
“No one ever got anywhere by avoiding change and progress, and there’s no point in being afraid of becoming irrelevant; I say bring on the future,” Clutterbuck says. “If the robot can also make me laugh, I’m game to try it out.”
In that case, Cecilia, who claims she’s “goddamn hilarious,” has some material she’d love for you to hear.