Robot Bartenders!

What do you look for in a bartender?

Think back for a minute. What have been the most satisfying bartender experiences you've had in the past? Were they times when you found comfort in a friendly face? An accommodating professional who could listen to your cocktail preferences and create a "customized" cocktail for you? How about a compassionate listener who agrees wholeheartedly with your assessment that your boss is a jerk and your spouse doesn't understand you? Or have your most satisfying experiences been times when you needed an expertly assembled drink as soon as possible and had it served up fast?

Whatever kind of bartender you most like, there may be a robot out there to suit your needs. Robot bartenders are now a thing, and their popularity is growing throughout the world. The range of designs and delivery systems varies widely, from animated "virtual bartenders" on touch screens, to humanoid machines wearing vests and bowties, to fast-moving robotic arms that snatch and shake bottles at amazing speed. No matter what the design, companies that make robot bartenders all hype the same basic selling points: Robots can make more drinks more quickly and more efficiently that human bartenders can. Oh, and some can even make small talk.

So what about the "human" side of the bartending and bar experience, you ask? This element is certainly forever changed—if not completely erased—by robot bartenders, even though some companies tout their product's ability to interact with its customers in astonishingly personalized ways. Some high-end robot bartenders are equipped with advanced technology that can help tailor the customer experience to each individual. For example, some robots come with built-in cameras that can scan customer faces and use AI to personalize their drink orders. Other robots can be programmed to create signature cocktails that can be customized for specific events, ingredient preferences, or seasons.

Cecilia is a robotic bartending system developed by a company called An animated figure that interacts with users from a touch screen and a video-game-style console, this system can hold 70 liters (18.4 gallons) of alcohol and mixers and can make 120 drinks per hour. When you step up to Cecilia, you can tell her what you'd like or ask her for recommendations. She even has a voice recognition feature so she can recognize returning customers and know their preferences.

If you prefer your humanoid bartender to be more three-dimensional, there's BRILLO, developed by researchers at Italy’s University of Naples starting in 2020. This robot can not only quickly whip up a cocktail, it can also remember your favorite drink and have a conversation with each patron. The university’s team of computer scientists used machine-learning algorithms to teach BRILLO, which is short for “Bartending Robot for Interactive Long-Lasting Operations,” how to interact with human customers. The robot can gauge whether the tone of a conversation is serious or playful and it can ask relevant and engaging questions. It can even crack a joke if it's appropriate.

For those who don't need the human aspect of bar interaction, there are a number of companies currently producing robotic bartending systems that are basically two robotic arms. These highly efficient and swift-moving machines are capable of serving up 80-120 drinks per hour with pinpoint accuracy and flawless consistency. Unlike the more humanoid designs, these robots can work with upwards of 150 different bottles and can create a much wider range of cocktails than their competition.

One of the world's leading robotic-arm bartending systems is made by a company called Makr Shakr, which produces a robot they call Toni. Able to mix 80 drinks per hour from a bar of 158 bottles, Toni was the first robotic bartender to be employed in an airport. In 2023, Toni started pouring at Singapore's Changi airport and is slated to be installed at a number of other major international destinations this year.

A company called Tipsy Robot is trying to find the sweet spot where efficient non-humanoid bartenders can also provide some of the entertainment of a human bartender. Their machines are each capable of making 60 different cocktails and serving up 120 drinks per hour. As they mix and pour, these robots also perform what the company calls "killer dance moves."

The higher-end robots on the market these days will run between $100,000 and $200,000 (Toni, from Makr Shakr has a price tag of around $110,000). If you're not quite ready to equip your bar with a high-end robot, you might consider the simpler, "coffee machine" style robotic drink mixer, which has limited capacity, works a little more slowly, and doesn't do any dancing for you. Depending on the model, these will run anywhere from $200 to a few thousand.

Not ready to have a robot mix anything for you? The technology may be cool, but losing that real human interaction—that unique experience you can only get from a person on the other side of the bar—is perhaps a loss that's just not worth getting a drink in 60 seconds.

For a little fun, you can check out these videos of robot bartenders at work: