“Hello, and welcome to the bar of the future. Tonight your server will be Toni the robot – he has two mechanical arms that can shake, stir or muddle an almost infinite number of cocktails from 158 different spirits. Just select the tipple of your choice – or design a recipe of your own – using the Makr Shakr app on your phone and you’ll be enjoying an ice-cold cocktail in less than 60 seconds. Toni accepts credit cards, PayPal and coupons, he’ll do the washing up and, if you ask very nicely, he’ll even perform a little dance for you.”
There is a lot to love about Toni. He doesn’t have dirty fingernails or views on Brexit, and he never forgets the recipe for a Hanky Panky. He won’t sneeze on your gin sour, or serve you short measures, or give you the wrong change. And he never, ever expects a tip.
And yet the sight of Toni’s (remarkably balletic) arms in action just makes me admire living, breathing bartenders all the more. Because, as any barfly knows, a really good bartender isn’t just a mixer of drinks – a good bartender is a host, capable of playing confessor, clown, counsellor and conversationalist, and doing it all while adding up three different bar bills and shaking a Daiquiri at the same time.
A good bartender knows how to read a room – but also knows what’s going down beyond those four walls. In my travels around the world, bartenders have been like little beacons along the way – John in Manhattan telling me to look up Gonçalo in Berlin, Monica in London sending word to Jad in Beirut. If you’re a stranger in a city, a bartender will always make you feel welcome. But they also know how to make you feel comfortable just sitting at the bar alone.
Toni the robot has a global network – of sorts: Makr Shakr says it has had similar cocktail-bots operating in Las Vegas, France, Italy and the Czech Republic. Japan also has several outlets that employ cyber staff; at the Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki, robots do everything from manning the check-in desk to dispensing the matcha lattes.
But are bionic bartenders the future? For high-volume, line-em-up-and-shoot-em-down drinking halls, perhaps. But as far as proper cocktail bars go, I think the code for old‑school hospitality may take a little longer to crack.
Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles.