AI is becoming an increasingly important part of the drinks business. But will the rise of the machines put highly skilled bartenders, blenders and other industry professionals out of business, ask Ian Buxton.

While we may not – yet – have arrived at the apocalyptic future anticipated in movies such as Terminator 2, the machines are very definitely on the march. And perhaps surprisingly, at least to the Orwellian pessimists amongst us, the drinks industry seems to be embracing Artificial Intelligence (AI) with some enthusiasm.  So where may we find the future of hi-tech imbibing?

The rise of the machines

Perhaps in a cocktail bar near you. Meet Cecilia, the world’s first interactive bartender. According to the promotional video, she’s slim, intelligent and touch-free. What’s more, ‘she’ can pour 120 cocktails per hour, tells jokes in 40 different languages and doesn’t take breaks – sounds like the owner’s ideal employee, especially in a post-Covid world of staff shortages. Is the industry interested? Well, according to Cecilia’s website, students at the Bacardi Center of Excellence at Florida International University’s School of Hospitality & Tourism Management will encounter a unit as they work towards their bachelor’s degree in spirits management. 

Looking more widely, tasting is a fearsomely complex business with no universally defined vocabulary (though tasting wheels help) and personal preferences and experiences inextricably cloud the process, alongside a degree of suggestibility. It only takes one person to suggest ‘coconut’ during a tasting before most of the room picks it out from their sample. Hence the application of AI to collate terminology used in whisky reviews.

Working through 6,500 whisky reviews might tax the patience of even the most dedicated enthusiast but that’s what researchers at Virginia Tech have accomplished as they aim to find a common language in tasting.  “We don’t know anyone else who has tried to take these reviews, which are in descriptive but messy natural language, and systematically analyse them this way. One of the nice things about whiskey is its enthusiast market,” said researcher Jacob Lahne. “People care about taste deeply. Whiskey lives or dies by sensory perception. These reviews are in metaphorical, messy, natural language. What we’re trying to get to is some shared concept about taste.”

Robotic blends

If that sounds abstruse and only of academic interest, think again. The researchers believe there could be real world benefits: by identifying which words are related and describe the same flavour they suggest consumers may eventually be helped to identify something that’s close to a super-premium expression but is more affordable.  Perhaps a brave new world is just around the corner – one that marketers of high-priced bottles should regard with concern.

Perhaps before long, not just cocktail mixologists and top-end sales folk should worry. The industry’s master blenders might look askance at customised robotic blending, but visitors to Louisville, Kentucky can create their own personalised bottle at the Barrels & Billets visitor attraction. You might even win a medal in the World Bourbon Blending Championship, promoted by the company. After all, whisky really needs more medal competitions and such a prestigious title is bound to impress your chums.

But, joking aside, it’s an interesting and engaging concept that speaks to the increasingly important idea of the experience economy, something that whisk(e)y fans have welcomed with growing enthusiasm, as demonstrated by the increased number of ever more expensive distillery experiences. At Barrels & Billets the visitor is greeted with samples of six different bourbons (which, to be fair, are themselves award winners at both the World Spirits Competition and the Ultimate Spirits Challenge) and work through the basic blending process in a 45 minute nosing and tasting process ($35).  Naturally, full bottles of your personalised blend are quickly available to take away.  

Bourbon blending

Hand-blending bourbon, the old-fashioned way

Create your own whisky

It’s certainly a step up from filling a bottle from a cask and writing your name and date on the label.  Years ago, and for a handsome fee, Johnnie Walker would send a blender to a location of your choice with a trunk of rare whiskies and mentor you through the creation of your own personal blended Scotch with, naturally, the option to buy more. Today, with Barrels & Billets democratising the possibility, the experience is available to the man (or woman) on the Clapham omnibus with the Home Party Kit tragically, currently only available from the Louisville site. (You could, of course, simply buy Master of Malt’s very own and terrifically splendid Home Blending Kit.)

But if you simply can’t wait to get started, AI has the answer. The Custom Bourbon Wizard is an AI-based app for your phone or online. Answer 13 questions and the app will design a bourbon just for you – visitors to Edinburgh’s Johnnie Walker centre will experience similar technology as they select a personally customised cocktail during their tour. 

Also from the owners of Johnnie Walker, the website whatsyourwhisky claims that with a mere 11 questions, by “using artificial intelligence and the expertise of our master distillers, we’ll recommend a whisky that’s perfect for you”.  Strangely, despite loading several very different taste profiles, it came up with Diageo brands for me time after time.  So some rather selective intelligence at work there but it’s curious that, having spent some years talking up the unique expertise of the blender, some at least of the whisky industry appears determined to demystify the process.

The machines are coming

In fact, we’re looking currently at fairly straightforward AI applications but the rate of development of the underlying software is extremely rapid and more sophisticated versions will surely follow, with advanced analytical capabilities and the ability to predict consumer preferences, based on those on-line tasting notes from an unwittingly obliging community of enthusiasts. 

Perhaps it’s time the master blenders developed their own resistance movement to remind their marketing colleagues of their unique and irreplaceable skills. Or just find their very own Terminator because, ready or not, the machines are coming.