"I have drunk cognac in Cognac, port in Oporto, raki in Turkey, tequila in Mexico City, moonshine in Kentucky, not to mention poteen in Fleet Street, bitter and industrial alcohol in Oxford, Yugoslav whisky in Yugoslavia, Japanese whisky in Glasgow and sweet Spanish wine and lemonade in Swansea. Also gin in England." -- Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking
While I can't boast a list quite as long or accomplished, I've swilled my fair share of liquids over the past 32 years. Up until two weeks ago, however, I'd never met a bartender who wasn't at least mostly human.
It was one of those unseasonably warm days in Beverly Hills, Calif. and I was in need of a little hair of the dog. On this particular occasion my hangover coincided nicely with a meeting that required I start drinking before sunset. I was in town to meet the people behind the Keurig of craft cocktails, a countertop robotic bartender by the name of Somabar. The device, which first came to the public's attention as a Kickstarter campaign in November of last year, promises "the perfect craft cocktail in under 5 seconds" without the mess of strainers, shakers, jiggers or a working knowledge of bartending basics.
As a an amateur booze enthusiast with an extreme distaste for doing dishes, I found the idea equal parts intriguing and off-putting. In any case, I wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to simultaneously dampen the dull throbbing in my head and test the closest thing the world's ever seen to a consumer-facing autonomous mixologist.
... Computerized cocktail slingers have been capturing the hearts of tech-obsessed booze hounds since the middle of the last century.
The quest for an accessible robotic bartender is far from new. As Troy Patterson pointed out in a 2013 article for Slate, computerized cocktail slingers have been capturing the hearts of tech-obsessed booze hounds since the middle of the last century. More recently, we've seen the emergence of Makr Shakr, which employs a set of robotic, app-controlled arms that can shake, muddle and strain up to 120 drinks per hour, and Monsieur, a $4,000 touchscreen-activated bartender in a box.
Unlike its predecessors, however, Somabar is focused on the home. According to its founders, the thing will ship this July for $430. What's more, the startup is in distribution talks with luxury retailers and working towards licensing deals with big-name liquor companies. Somabar could have the stuff to finally take the robotic bartender mainstream, albeit in a form factor more akin to your mother's KitchenAid than The Jetson's Rosie. That is, if it can make a drink.
The device that I tested was still a prototype, but according to the company's founders, it's a very close approximation of what the final product will look and act like. It's a large, white plastic and hardwood device, with an recess in the front big enough to fit a normal-sized martini or collins glass, and three, 750ml clear plastic cylinders affixed to either side. Those airtight cylinders, known as Soma Pods, are where the Keurig comparison comes in. They hold the liquor and mixers and can be easily stored in the refrigerator for safe keeping (and chilling). They're also the key to Somabar's licensing ambitions.
For now, however, the containers are manually filled, as is the 150ml bitters pod which is placed under what looks like a large silver button on the top of the machine. Users can add, adjust or choose from a series of pre-loaded cocktail recipes in an accompanying smartphone app. Once a user has selected just the right drink, the machine goes to work, pumping precise ingredients from the appropriate pods into a mixing chamber where it marries the ingredients through a proprietary "combination of fluid dynamics, kinetic energy, and turbulence created by static vanes," before dumping the final concoction into a glass all in a matter of seconds. As kitchen appliance go, it's a beautiful, minimal and simultaneously complex machine. As a replacement for fully functional bar setup, iit falls flat on a number of levels.
The first sign of Somabar's limitations came when the company's CTO, Ammar Jangbarwala, dropped a cube of ice in a martini glass while prepping the machine to make a Manhattan. In order to avoid added cost, the company opted not to add a cooling element. You can chill the Soma Pods separately, but failing that, you'll either have to add ice to your drinks or live with luke warm libations. For those who prefers their drinks straight up that could be a deal breaker. I just happen to be one of those people.
This was a Manhattan in name alone.
Having established that I'd be drinking my Manhattan, however oddly, on the rocks in a Martini glass, Jangbarwala whipped out his phone to show me the under-construction app that allows users to either enter their desired ingredients for recommendations, directly select from a list of curated and crowd-sourced recipes or enter their own. He selected our drink of choice, picked a moderate strength and an infusion of bitters and just like that, it was cocktail time.
The result was an unfortunately warm, ungarnished Manhattan, that had neither been shaken nor stirred. This was a Manhattan in name alone. And that is the fundamental issue with Somabar: it promises craft cocktails when in reality its limited feature set makes it more of a mixed drink dispenser than an automated mixologist. There are no cherries on top, no egg white froths; you won't see dustings of nutmeg or cinnamon; it won't muddle your mint; and it most definitely will not talk you through a breakup.
What it will do is throw together up to six different liquids (and an optional spray of bitters) in a matter of seconds. As a $430 party trick, it's pretty damn neat, but it doesn't truly deliver on its promise to effortlessly bring the cocktail revolution home. That's not to say there are no benefits to the Somabar. The machine's self-cleaning mechanism makes it perfect for experimentation. We switched from a Manhattan, to a Moscow Mule to something called a Presbytirian in the space of ten minutes without cross-contaminating flavors. The accompanying app, which allows users to search by available ingredients, also means you'll never run out of cocktails to try. But the Somabar is a poor substitute for human hands in the subtle art of drink making. Crafting a cocktail takes skill and nuance, and I'm sorry to say I still haven't met a machine that can match a man-made Manhattan.