Food & Drink

Robots Are Making Cocktails Now -- Will They Replace Bartenders?

Makr Shakr | Photo: Marco Beck Peccoz; Illustration: Emily Carpenter/Thrillist
Makr Shakr | Photo: Marco Beck Peccoz; Illustration: Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

Are we done with human bartenders? At bars, robots can make your cocktails and deliver them, like giant whirring Roombas. At home, all manner of electronic and computerized gizmos are ready to instruct and optimize your drinking experience. Entire festivals are dedicated to the sport, such as San Francisco’s Cocktail Robotics Grand Challenge and Vienna’s Roboexotica.

The future has arrived. But will it help build a better cocktail? We test-drove a few of the latest, shiniest, and newest-fangled options to find out:

Barsys Coaster ($149): Perhaps the most straightforward of the lot is a “smart coaster” that measures drinks by weight, instead of by volume (i.e. using a jigger or measuring cup). 

Users download an app that contains roughly 2,000 drink recipes. Then, connect to the coaster via Bluetooth, and select a drink. The app lists which bottles to pour, and the coaster lights up blue, then green when the correct weight is reached. An optional mixing glass contains a metal attachment at the bottom to agitate the liquid: 120 rotations per minute for a stirred drink, 300 rpm for a “shaken” drink. You then pour the cocktail into a drinking glass over ice.

My Negroni was just fine, although the total volume was about a quarter more than I would ordinarily make – it’s easy to overpour. Shaken drinks seem a bit more problematic, since there’s no actual shaking going on, and no ice in the mixing glass, so you won’t get aeration or dilution in your Margarita or Daiquiri.

Is this gadget a must-have? Jiggering drinks really isn’t that difficult, so no. But it was fun to use, and I could see it being entertaining for DIY drinks at parties. Speaking of which, future iterations of the coaster will include pitcher-sized drinks.

Bbot Robotic Drink Delivery (Not available for purchase): At Cincinnati karaoke bar Tokyo Kitty, bartenders make the drinks, but two little basket-like “robots” deliver them into private karaoke rooms.

In terms of mechanics, guests order drinks via phone or iPad. Once the drinks are loaded into the “robot,” a pulley system draws the basket up to the ceiling, across the bar, and drops down through a hole in the ceiling of each karaoke room. It’s both startling and delightful to see your drinks descend this way, though it’s not far removed from an old-fashioned dumbwaiter.

Although guests (and the press) seem to love it, Bbot has discontinued the robots. Instead, the company has pivoted to focus on the mobile ordering technology side of the business – think Seamless rather than sci-fi. So if you want to try this in person, better head to Cincy sooner rather than later. Personally, I am hopeful that someone already is working on the next iteration of this product, because I would love to have a tiny electronic R2D2-like penguin in a bow-tie airlift my drinks.

Bartesian ($350): Premixed cocktail dispensers aren’t exactly new: there’s Bibo Barmaid, Keurig’s Drinkworks, not to mention other iterations that came and flamed out (anyone else remember Jevo, the “Keurig of Jello shots?) So what makes Bartesian different? In a word: Oprah, who named it to her 2019 Favorite Things List. Based on her description here I'm guessing that she doesn't actually use it: "I’m lucky to have my house manager Eddie mixing fresh cocktails for me..."

While I didn’t get to test-drive the Bartesian in person, Thrillist’s intrepid senior editor Adriana Velez did. While she liked her Cosmopolitan well enough and the company’s use of real fruit juice concentrate and natural flavors, she was a little wary of the preservatives needed to make the drinks shelf stable. 

“If you entertain a lot I can see that this would be a fun gadget to have around,” she summed up. “I can also see this going the way of Soda Stream, which I used enthusiastically for two months and then abandoned.”

Bionic Bartenders ($110,000): Basically, a pair of robotic arms that shake, stir and sometimes spill drinks. They are absolute showpieces, created by Italian architect Carlo Ratti and sold through Turin robotics company Makr Shakr. These “robot bartenders” can be spotted on select Royal Caribbean cruises, where they debuted in 2014; a mobile cocktail maker on wheels (named Bruno – yes, they have names) also will be heading to South by Southwest in Austin next month. Toni is the name of the bionic bartender that mixes drinks at the rooftop bar of Milan’s Townhouse Duomo hotel – which is where I tried out the technology, accompanied by several bartenders of the actual human variety. 

Guests use a tablet to select from a list of 15 classic cocktails, each with simple builds. It took five minutes to make four drinks, with the robot arms dispensing liquid from bottles racked overhead (no way to select a preferred liquor) then sloshing each drink, whether shaken or stirred, in a wimpy circular motion, along with what our bartender buddies poetically call “shitty ice” and presented in a plastic cup, with no garnish. (“It’s lacking fingers,” one bartender observed.) 

Our drinks ranged from an inoffensive Negroni to a Whiskey Sour that was watery and downright undrinkable. The general manager for an LA-based cocktail lounge took one sip and rendered his decision. “News for my bartenders: their jobs are safe…for now.”

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Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of NIGHTCAP and Shake.Stir.Sip. (Chronicle Books).