The Good, the Bad and the Synthetic: How Technology and Big Data are Permeating the Alcohol Industry

“The best thing you can do with tequila is take it all at once with salt and lemon. The second best thing is to have this cocktail. Your black cherry margarita is ready.” OK thanks? “Well, that was fun. Don’t drink and post articles.” I’d take more offense, but the would-be comedian who made my drink before launching this gratuitous attack on my regular workday is actually a robot bartender by the name of Cecilia.ai, which is a piece of a bad joke. Robotic technology described as the world’s first interactive waiter.

Welcome to one of the many ways big technology, big data, and artificial intelligence are permeating the beverage space.

Over the past several years, a wide range of technology and artificial intelligence projects have made their debut, popping up in nearly every corner of the alcohol industry. Swedish company Mackmyra Whiskey launched a product whose recipe is engineered by an algorithm, while Carlsberg has invested millions of dollars in an artificial intelligence initiative called the “Beer Fingerprint Project,” which assesses the composition of beer and analyzes yeast species while matching desired flavors with their chemical counterparts. Huge conglomerates like Diageo use interactive Buzzfeed-style questionnaires like What Your Whiskey to try to help consumers find their flavor preferences and Ph.D. A student in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech recently used machine learning to scan thousands of whiskey reviews to gather flavors, themes, and terms.

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Then there are smart inventory management solutions like BarTrack, which has raised more than $15 million since its founding in 2018, and business dashboards like Tasting Intelligence, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze reviews and social media posts, allowing brands to get what they have. Fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist as it relates to whether people collectively love or hate the latest IPA’s Blueberry Additional Fuzzy Triple IPA.

These examples provide a glimpse into a range of possibilities from intelligent developments where the dissemination of data or advanced technology provides logical and clearly useful applications. Using AI to try to reduce a winery’s environmental impact while enabling it to thrive in changing conditions might be “legally good” as it gets. On the other hand, there is an astonishing level of money and hype being thrown into projects and products, which on the surface don’t seem to offer any kind of tangible improvement in the saturated lives of consumers or producers and can veer straight into this “chaotic, evil” space very quickly.

Teravio

Initially designed as a platform to provide vineyards with actionable data for climate change adaptation, Terraview has already partnered with more than 100 wineries, including large companies such as Pernod Ricard Spain. The company combines satellite imagery, historical weather data, productivity, short- and long-term forecasts, microclimate segmentation, and more to deliver specific, data-backed insights with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“We designed Terraview to help owners make reliable, data-backed decisions while saving time and money,” says Prateek Srivastava, Terraview Co-Founder and CEO. He cites his ability to automatically calculate yield estimates, monitor soil nutrient levels, and accurately optimize staffing needs as examples of the direct impact of his day-to-day platform for a particular winery, but the company’s aspirations are great, to say the least.

“Our vision is to transform wine into a $1 trillion carbon-neutral industry and build tools that can serve more than 500,000 growers around the world to tackle the effects of accelerating climate change,” Srivastava explains. “We expect our platform to be a way to increase the knowledge and traditions between generations of practitioners in agriculture, and to ensure that primary industries are better equipped for tomorrow not only to survive, but to continue to thrive.”

Woodcraft Bourbon Blender

Publishing a selection of six finished bourbons that consumers can taste and blending together in thousands of ratios to create unique blends, WoodCraft Bourbon Blender brings whiskey innovation to the masses with its plug-and-play bourbon franchise, which it says is ready to take across the nation.

“Consumers go through a 45-minute experience where they learn history and how to blend in with their tastes,” says Doug Hall, co-founder of WoodCraft Bourbon Blender, who has spent decades working with companies like Edrington and Diageo. In addition to physical franchise capabilities, the company also offers in-home and online migrations, such as MyBourbonWizard.com.

Terraview is a technology company that is infiltrating the alcohol industry.

It’s no surprise that veteran whiskey mixers can’t believe that two quick questions or 45 minutes of history can produce excellent whiskey. “AI may be able to replicate an existing flavor, but the interpretation of whether a blend is good depends on taste and opinion, not just formula,” says Joe Beatrice, founder of Barrell Craft Spirits, a prominent blender and independent bottler. “Our blending process uses constant experimentation and iteration, through which we discover nuances, looking for flavor profiles that create synergies together,” Beatrice continues. But this is a personal interpretation [not an automated one] Which includes a team of professionals to taste and discuss whether the mix tastes good.”

WoodCraft already operates in the heart of bourbon production, in Louisville, Kentucky. Earlier this year, the parent company behind Louisville Slugger and the iconic Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory became a franchisee, opening another wood-centric attraction downtown, Barrels & Blocks. “It is a continuation of Hillerich & Bradsby’s long history of creating unique experiences in Louisville,” says Marketing Director Andrew Solidy, noting that the experience is very different from a standard distillery and tasting tour.

Visitors sample six types of bourbon and mix them together in 0.5 to 1 milliliter increments to create a personalized recipe, they can also purchase a full-size bottle. Even for the uninitiated, this interactive process is at the heart of what blending whiskey represents in a way that a survey or AI recommendation — like Diageo’s What Your Whiskey, or Woodcraft’s default “bourbon wizard” — simply cannot. “When it comes to whiskey blending, there is no substitute for human taste,” says Beatrice.

As an interactive tourist attraction, the WoodCraft model seems like an interesting way to get more people to come to Bourbon, although I don’t expect to find a franchise in every subway-side mall anytime soon. You can choose any feet-length layer you want, after all, but that doesn’t really make you a chef, does it?

“Not everyone can make a delicious combination,” Beatrice says. “Whiskey blending is a true art that is just beginning to gain the attention and respect it deserves.”

Cecilia

When you need to mix up to 120 cocktails per hour, Cecilia is your go-to. Developed in Israel and revealed to the public at this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Cecilia, an interactive robot waiter, can make rowdy jokes in 40 languages, carry 70 liters of liquor, and even check ID cards.

“Our goal is [for Cecilia] To work alongside human bartenders and help them serve more drinks to their guests,” says Nir Cohen Baraira, Director of Marketing at Cecilia.ai. “The world of service and hospitality is all about making the guest experience the best it can be, and advanced technology makes service even more personal. Faster and more fun.”

Let the collective whining of bartenders in your favorite neighborhood subside. “I would caution against the complete replacement of robots for job groups that do not require, but do currently involve, human interaction, because I believe that interaction keeps us grounded and connected to the rest of humanity—we are social beings,” says Donnie Clutterbuck, executive vice president of the United States Bar Association, and bartender. Manager at Cure Bar in Rochester, New York “If the point of a bar is to provide a third space in people’s lives, or a socio-political scene where the bartender is a sheriff and judge and Smith and friend, I’m not quite sure that a robot can do that.”

Cecilia’s proponents don’t try to replace bartenders globally, although Brian Connors, director of the Bacardi Center of Excellence and professor of hospitality at Florida International University, notes that is the most common question he receives. “Cecilia is about creating a new and different beverage experience in places where guests don’t expect the same level of hospitality; a bar or restaurant will always need a human service provider right now,” he says. Instead, it sees the robot live in crowded theaters while on break, or at any kind of festival or conference.

    Cecilia.ai is a tech company that is infiltrating the alcohol industry.

“Standing in line at a concert or sports game for a beer isn’t a passion for anyone, and interacting with the opposite person or bartender is so fast that it might as well be an all-purpose bot,” Clutterbuck says, adding that that doesn’t mean he supports a complete replacement for bartenders.

In the end, whether you want to get a drink by the bot or not depends on what you are looking for from that drink. Is it a new cocktail developed by an expert bartender you trust, or is it just a finely-animated showcase of a classic drink whose precise recipe has been known around the world over the past century?

“No one has ever managed to avoid change and progress, and there is no need to be afraid of becoming irrelevant; bring on the future,” says Clutterbuck. “If a robot can make me laugh, too, I’ll try it.”

In this case, Cecilia, who claims to be “very funny,” has some material she’d love to hear.

This story is part of VP Pro, our free content platform and newsletter for the beverage industry, covering wine, beer, liquor – and beyond. Subscribe to VP Pro now!

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