We Just Don’t Need Robot Bartenders

By Noah Kaufman |

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About 20 years ago on MTV’s generation-defining sketch show The State, Thomas Lennon played a recurring character called Old Fashioned Guy. He walked around in a bow tie spouting off bits of wisdom like, “When the giant who holds up the Earth dies, we are screwwwwwed.” With today’s embrace of smart kitchens and Wi-Fi connected everything, the claim I’m about to make might sound as unhinged as one about a geriatric giant, but here we go: Call me old fashioned, we do not need pod-based cocktails.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show the $429 Somabar, billed alternately as a “robot bartender” and the “Keurig of cocktails,” has gotten quite a bit of buzz. We even covered it here back when it was nothing but a Kickstarter and a dream. But while acolytes of app-powered appliances may be tripping over themselves in Las Vegas this weekend to get a Somabar Margarita, for me, it may mark the moment when we finally ran out of items that the Internet of Things can truly improve in the kitchen.

For those not familiar with pod-based cocktails (podtails?), here’s how they work: You load up 750ml containers, or pods, with various liquors and mixers. The Somabar, unlike some if its competitors, also has a spot to drop in bitters. After you’ve loaded the pods, just tap your smartphone and the robot bartender will mix all those ingredients together and spit out a precisely measured drink of your choosing. But after the initial “oohs” and “ahhs” fade, I think the appropriate response to this admittedly impressive feat of engineering is, “…meh.”

I don’t say that because Somabar’s podtails taste bad—I couldn’t say that beucase I haven’t had one yet.  I will note that early comments from the CES floor claim that the drinks are “OK if a little bland,” which is not a review that makes me hoverboard over to my Internet-enabled standing desk to order a machine that costs more than many laptops. The problem with pod-based cocktails is that they don’t really solve a problem at all.

Let’s contrast Somabar with the other buzzy beverage item at CES this week, the Pico Brew. Another darling of Kickstarter and another podification of alcohol, the Pico Brew is a pushbutton appliance that brews beer on your countertop. And while I probably won’t use the (WARNING: TIRED POINT OF COMPARISON COMING) “Keurig for homebrewing” any time soon, it represents a marked improvement in the process of making beer for the casual consumer. Even a Luddite homebrewer has to admit that the ability to pop grains and hops in a box, push a button and walk away cuts down on hours of serious labor, generally done over a pot of boiling liquid.

Cocktails, on the other hand, don’t present the same issues. We ran an informal experiment at the FWx offices and discovered that it took us somewhere between 45-60 seconds to mix a martini. The Somabar trims that down to an noteworthy five seconds. But unless the number of martinis you’re drinking hits double digits, that sort of time and effort savings just isn’t going to improve your quality of life. It would barely even let you get in an extra game of Three’s. And all this is to say nothing of the limitations under which robot bartenders like Somabar labor. As far as the technology has come in a relatively short amount of time (and while its creators boast it can make over 300 different drinks), the machines don’t seem to have the tools to make a proper mojito or pisco sour. So until it can muddle mint, froth an egg white or inappropriately hit on you while you order, robots simply cannot take the place of a serious bartender.

Now go shake yourself up an old fashioned. We need to hold on to human-made cocktails as long as we can. 

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