Technology is everywhere in bars: We use point-of-sale software and computer monitors to start and close tabs; electronic printers spit out drink orders rung in from servers; Facebook lets friends and regulars know when to come through for a visit; and woe be unto the un-Instagram-savvy bar manager.
And in a lot of ways the industry is better for this infusion. We’re better connected, more collaborative, and while I’m tired of the quest for ever-more-impressive garnishes, I still feel a small swell of pride when someone takes a picture of a cocktail I made.
Then there are bartender robots, like the ones the Massachusetts Institute of Technology got a big government grant for. Some “beerbots” were developed in 2015 to take orders and serve. Others can mix cocktails in seconds. Politicians got pissed about wasteful government spending.
I’m concerned about automation replacing jobs, but let’s face it: Technology will never replace bartenders.
I’m the first person to admit you can teach a monkey to make drinks, and it’s true: Anyone can follow a recipe. But working behind a bar is about so much more than making drinks, and most of the things good bartenders do are things that can’t be taught. Here’s why.
Machines Can’t Taste
In many ways, cocktails are like music: Just because you can play the classics doesn’t mean you’re ready to compose your own.
Until we get into Blade Runner or Altered Carbon territory, robots and artificial intelligence aren’t going to be able to think for themselves outside of a very particular set of patterns, which means they can’t alter recipes to taste.
One of the phrases bartenders hear about a thousand times a shift is “not too sweet,” and I get it. (Sort of: “Sweet” is kind of like “dark”; there are a lot of options.) But we all know what to do to reach a guest’s desired level of sweet: tone down the sugar, up the citrus, or, if you really want to get wild and crazy, switch up the base spirit just a little bit.
If you like a not-too-sweet sidecar, for instance, I’d probably cut the brandy with half an ounce of rye to add a little pinch of spice. Everyone who tells me they don’t like rum because it’s too sweet gets an agricole daiquiri (which they fucking love).
Ultimately, you can program every cocktail recipe in print into a robot’s hard drive, but that doesn’t mean a machine like the Makr Shakr is going to be able to make these types of tweaks. They aren’t going to have the experience of straw-testing every drink they make for however many years it takes them to learn these differences.
Siri Is a Shitty Tour Guide
Sometimes, particularly on the weekends, people sit at my bar for a drink or two while they figure out what to do with the rest of their night. And most of the time, they ask me for recommendations.
Why? Because a living, breathing human who works in a neighborhood and can talk to you about their experience is a helluva lot more accurate and interesting than a Yelp review. Siri can find dance clubs, but she can’t tell you shit about the atmosphere there. Let’s face it, she doesn’t get out much.
You know who definitely knows a thing or two about the local nightlife and can, usually, give you some solid behind-the-scenes info? Bingo: Your bartender. It may have been a year or three since we’ve had a Friday night off but we can totally still get you a list of places vetted for a good time.
Some Bartenders Are Basically Robots Already
We already have robots behind some bars. You know what I’m talking about: We’ve all been to that bar where the bartenders are so caught up in their own cocktail knowledge and personalized bar tools they look at you with visible disdain when you ask for a shot and a beer. These folks don’t care if you’re having a good time; they care that you think they’re gods.
When cocktails first started taking over bar programs (shit, when the phrase bar program first entered industry vernacular), it was a thing of great pride to be able to make a unique, creative, delicious drink, and having the booze smarts to concoct these creations put you in a class of professional well above the folks simply cracking beers and slinging shots who had no idea what, say, cachaca was. To separate the two worlds, to identify someone as a person who crafted cocktails for a living, mixologist was born. These people largely made great drinks, had huge followings on social media, were sought out for competitions and interviews and were a huge fucking pain in the ass to work with.
A few years ago, around Thanksgiving, the Washington Post published an article that will always be near and dear to my heart. Invoking one of the very first kings of cocktails, Dale DeGroff, M. Carrie Allan wrote that what makes DeGroff a great bartender isn’t his cocktail expertise, it’s his genuine investment in making people comfortable. “A bartender who makes the guest uncomfortable is just not a very good bartender,” DeGroff told her.
Cocktail writer David Wondrich told the Washington Post that “while ‘bartender’ and ‘mixologist’ are often used interchangeably, mixology — ‘the fine art of mixing drinks’ — is actually just one part of bartending.”
He added, “Some bartenders are almost entirely mixologists,” letting Allan fill in the blank: “And not much else.”
…And Might Accidentally Poison You
I recently learned that Keurig, the coffee-pod producer everyone either loves or hates, has launched Drinkworks Home Bar, a “pod-based cocktail delivery machine.”
“We set out to reinvent the entire drinking experience,” Nathaniel Davis, Drinkworks CEO and president, said in a statement.
To which I can only say, oh, FFS.
The late-’90s, early-aughts cocktail renaissance, the rededication to classic recipes, fresh juices and quality ingredients, was an actual revolution — because the artificial-is-better philosophies of the ’70s and ’80s absolutely ruined the way Americans drank.
Promoting cocktails-in-pods is like campaigning to do away with electricity and go back to using candles.
And while I totally see the appeal of having the ability to make half a dozen different cocktails at home without having to, you know, make anything or spend the money on stocking a full bar in your kitchen, please tell me how you feel okay about drinking a mojito that comes out of a pod? Where is the mint? What are they using to make it taste like mint?
For the $299 the machine would cost, you can stock a full bar at home and have some money left over for cute glassware. Not to mention you’ll avoid accidentally giving yourself diabetes or an ulcer.
But Most Importantly, Bars Are About More Than Drinking
Ready for a little history lesson? Let’s talk about Prohibition and Irish resentment, and how it all influenced one city’s horrifically archaic liquor license quota.
At the repeal of Prohibition, Boston’s mayor was J.M. Curley, a working-class Irish American known for his mob ties and goodwill toward the working man. The state legislature at the time comprised mostly wealthy Yankee types, and they had a serious distrust of Curley. They worried that with alcohol legal again, he’d turn Boston into one giant bar fight. So the State limited the number of liquor licenses Boston could distribute. (Wanna learn more? I wrote a two-part series and a handful of follow-up dispatches on this.)
That number didn’t budge until 2006, creating what was essentially a legal black market for a license. In 2005, the going rate for a liquor license was upward of $400,000. By 2014, hardly anything had changed.
Without the initial buy-in capital for a liquor license, many would-be business owners simply gave up before they got started, leaving poorer, largely minority-populated neighborhoods without any full dine-in restaurants with a bar, cutting those neighborhoods off from tourism dollars and the eyes of developers who might make beneficial changes. Yes, restaurants make their money on alcohol margins, but more importantly, people like to gather together for a drink.
Ayanna Pressley, now a congresswoman but then a city councilor, fought to change this, and not because of the alcohol, but because of the social importance of bars.
“Restaurants are the glue for thriving, healthy neighborhoods,” Pressley said in a statement.
And it’s true.
Bars and restaurants aren’t only some of the largest employers of the young and diverse, we’re one of the last meritocracies in the nation: You can go from dishwasher to prep cook to line cook, from busser to server to bartender.
But perhaps most importantly, bars are where you meet friends and sometimes make new ones; they’re where you go at the end of a long day to sit and think; they’re where you celebrate; they’re where you can put a few of the pieces of life’s puzzle together.
And that has everything to do with the atmosphere enabled by the people who work behind them.
I’m sure a robot can, one day soon, say, “What can I get for you?” and competently pour you a beer.
But they’ll never be able to say, “Hi, friends, good to see you,” and mean it.