Are we at the dawn of a new era of superpowered bartenders pushing creativity and experience to new heights?PRESENTED BY BOOTHBY IN PARTNERSHIP WITH BOMBAY CITRON pressé
The Tom Collins is a classic cocktail that has been around for over 100 years. It was first mentioned in print in the 1876 book “The Bartender’s Guide” by Jerry Thomas. The original recipe called for Old Tom gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water.
If you’ve read about the Tom Collins before on the web, you’ll feel that the opening above is pretty spot on — it could have been written by just about any two-bit drinks writer (I’m sure I’ve written something similar). But that wasn’t written — it was generated by ChatGPT, a chatbot created by an organisation called OpenAI that has been getting a bit of attention recently. Put simply, you ask it a question or give it a command in everyday English, and it spits out a response.
But why ask me, when we can ask the ChatGPT AI what it is?
“You can describe me as a large language model trained by OpenAI,” it says. “I am a machine learning system that is designed to assist with a wide range of tasks, such as answering questions and generating written text. I am not a person, and I do not have access to the internet or the ability to browse for information. I am only able to provide information and responses based on the data I have been trained on.”
It seems that data my AI friend is talking about includes a load of drink specs and a fair bit of cocktail history — Wikipedia, perhaps, has been a part of its diet. It also spits out some useful cocktail origin stories, the veracity of which — like much of your garden variety cocktail and drinks ‘churnalism’ — is questionable.
So, pop quiz — are you smarter than AI?
Was the Tom Collins so called because it:
a) got its name from a popular prank in the 1800s where someone would tell their friends that a man named Tom Collins was talking badly about them, or;
b) the drink evolved from the John Collins, by bartender John Collin in London at the Limmer’s Hotel in the 1820s and 1830s?
Before you answer, let me clarify where each of these statements come from: The first is from a machine learning system trained on massive datasets, and the second is from a learning machine called Dave Wondrich who knows more about this stuff than the whole damn internet.
Well, today at least. Because the ability of AI to know everything and to understand language is only going to get better. That has big ramifications for how we do our jobs in the future, whether you're a writer or yes, even a bartender.
What does AI have to do with the bar world?
To be fair to the chatbot, that first AI-generated answer — the popular prank thesis — has its fair share proponents; you’ll find that answer behind many stories about the Tom Collins. And that’s the way these origin stories went B.W. (Before Wondrich) and before the internet. I remember picking up stories and techniques from other older bartenders in the very early 2000s, before so much of this was online — and they’d had it passed down to them. That just meant that the story always changed — us humans, we’re unreliable.
The chatbot can be unreliable too. But as someone who pays the rent by writing about drinks, the AI does a pretty decent job of writing a run of the mill classic cocktail piece. So much of what passes for drinks writing on the web — stories like, The Five Must-Drink Gin Drinks Of The Summer, say — could easily be written by this AI chatbot right now. I can only imagine how much better it’ll be in five years.
And I don’t see the use of AI as the worst thing in the world. Copy and paste press release junk masquerading as journalism is more of an affront, if you ask me. What AI-generated stories will mean is that the vast world of undifferentiated, optimised-for-search-engines content won’t be written by humans but by AI directed by humans. There will be a large chunk of average and bland information, and then there will be an very small quotient of high-quality, human-centric, nuanced and new stories that AI won’t be able to do.
There are parallels here with the bar world, too.
There was a time when you couldn’t get a Tom Collins in most bars, despite it being a very simple (and old) drink. These days that’s less of a problem. We live in a world in which you can get a great Old Fashioned at your local boozer. It’s a wonderful world in which to drink.
But that general rise in quality means that high-end bars need to do more to differentiate themselves. That has been underway over the last decade, but in the next few years it will become harder and harder for a great bar to stand out with great service and great drinks alone.
Now, not every bar needs to be on The World’s 50 Best Bars list or win awards — there’s a growing and strong scene of neighbourhood bars that make money and satisfy their customers, and that, after all, is the job. But for the bars with big aspirations, bars that want to influence and change the world in which we live — good bars that want to be known as great bars — they’ll need a hook to hang their hat on.
The bars that fly highest will be the ones which push deeper into the things that distinguish them from others. That might be in menu development and concept — few bars can do what Boothby Drinks List of the Year winner Luke Whearty does at Byrdi in Melbourne — or bars that have a strong purpose (like Matt Whiley’s Re and its march towards zero waste). It might be bars with a narrow but deep focus in one area — the mezcal-importing Cantina OK! springs to mind — or the kind of bar that specialises in big experience, like the wonderful Maybe Sammy. Each of these bars have something you can’t get anywhere else, and they go deep into it.
The Madrid-based drinks writer François Monti wrote about this in his newsletter this last week, too. It’s written in Spanish but worth seeking out and translating via Google, because he writes about how Jean Trinh, owner and bartender at Alquimico in Cartagena in Colombia, has taken such an obsessive approach to ensuring the sustainability and quality of ingredients used in their cocktails — the fruit and veg portion of them, anyway — that he went and bought a farm to grow them. Again, at the pointy end of the bar world, there’s an obsession and doggedness aimed at making something you can’t get anywhere else, something that is only made by them.
The reason why it will be harder for bars to stand out in the next few years is that AI-assisted bartenders could be more creative — and the standard will rise once again.
A superpowered bartender?
AI offers bartenders the possibilty to level up. Just as AI right now can write a run of the mill story on the Tom Collins, it can also do a bit when it comes to recipes. And bartenders can use AI right now to get ideas for new drinks and menus. Though the answers generated by AI right now would need a tweak before being put into practise, they do provide a decent starting point.
So what can the AI chatbot do with drinks? Can it give me a Tom Collins-inspired cocktail menu of three never-seen-before drinks using Bombay Sapphire as the hero ingredient, and native Australian ingredients, that is perfect for a summer’s day?
Here’s what it generated:
Here is a Tom Collins-inspired cocktail menu featuring three never-before-seen cocktails made with Bombay Sapphire gin and native Australian ingredients, perfect for a summer’s day:
The Outback Collins: This refreshing twist on the classic Tom Collins uses Bombay Sapphire gin, wattleseed syrup, and lemon myrtle bitters for a unique Australian flavor. Mix 2 ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin with 1 ounce of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of wattleseed syrup, and a dash of lemon myrtle bitters in a shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top off the glass with carbonated water and stir. Garnish with a lemon wedge and a sprig of lemon myrtle.
The Kakadu Collins: This fruity cocktail uses Bombay Sapphire gin, Kakadu plum syrup, and finger lime caviar for a tart and tangy flavor. Mix 2 ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin with 1 ounce of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of Kakadu plum syrup, and a teaspoon of finger lime caviar in a shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top off the glass with carbonated water and stir. Garnish with a lemon wedge and a sprinkle of finger lime caviar.
The Daintree Collins: This exotic cocktail uses Bombay Sapphire gin, quandong puree, and bush tomato syrup for a tropical and flavorful twist on the classic Tom Collins. Mix 2 ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin with 1 ounce of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of quandong puree, and a teaspoon of bush tomato syrup in a shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top off the glass with carbonated water and stir. Garnish with a lemon wedge and a slice of quandong.
Look, it’s not a groundbreaking menu and the cocktail names are cringey — but they’re also not the worst names I’ve ever heard, either. And it does like to hew closely the two parts Bombay, one part lemon formula but hey, I did ask for a Collins-inspired menu, didn’t I?
We’re entering what Troy Young, the writer behind the People Vs Algorithms newsletter, calls “the age of the tech powered superhuman.” He sees a future in which “the art of the prompt” — instructing the AI to generate something — will be the basis of new jobs. I can see how bartenders might make AI work for them, as an extension of their current knowledge: to gather ideas for new cocktail menus, for working with different kinds of spirits — maybe even a bar concept or two.
Did I put that into the chatbot? You bet:
Here is a concept for a new bar that specializes in gin and offers a unique and unexpected experience:
The Gin Jungle is a botanical-inspired bar that transports guests to a tropical paradise filled with exotic plants, colorful flowers, and the sounds of the rainforest. The bar offers a wide selection of gin cocktails, each featuring a unique botanical ingredient and presented in a creative and artistic way.
The space itself is designed to evoke the feeling of being deep in the jungle, with lush greenery, hanging vines, and colorful murals depicting scenes of the rainforest. The bar itself is made from repurposed wood and stone, with a natural and rustic aesthetic.
Guests can enjoy their gin cocktails while lounging on plush sofas and cushions, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the jungle. The bar also offers a small selection of snacks and small plates, featuring exotic flavors and ingredients inspired by the rainforest.
Unique and unexpected? It doesn’t blow my mind. But I am impressed at the way it linked the botanicals in gin with the bar concept, and we’re only just at the beginning of what we’re asking AI to do.
But it's those unexpected and unique ideas that AI can’t do — not yet anyway. I mean, AI couldn’t write this story you’re reading, about the Tom Collins and AI — right?
You know I asked it that, too:
With the advent of AI-powered systems that can generate written text, there is a growing concern that machines will eventually be able to do a writer’s job better than a human. While it is true that AI systems can produce large volumes of text quickly and efficiently, they lack the creativity and human touch that is essential to good writing.
The Tom Collins cocktail, for example, is a classic drink with a rich history and heritage. Yet, an AI system could easily produce an article about the Tom Collins without fully understanding the nuances and subtleties of the drink. The result would be a bland and uninteresting piece of writing that lacks the depth and insight of a human-written article.
Bland and uninteresting? I couldn’t agree more. But then again, I’ve been bland and uninteresting before. And I’d like to think that the way I think about the Tom Collins has a little more nuance than what the chatbot is capable of.
I am excited, though, to see how these tools influence the bar world. Will there be some mighty, creative leap forward? Will the adoption of these tools result in a same-same middle, with the vast majority of bars becoming bland and uninteresting? Will the brands we drink be the result not of a master distiller — someone with years of experience, a great nose, and some inner ingenuity — but an all-knowing AI system?
What I do know is that I don’t have the answer to that — other than, “it depends.” Guess where our AI friend came down on the matter?
On the one hand, AI tools could potentially help bar industry professionals to generate new and innovative ideas for cocktails and bar concepts. For example, an AI system could analyze existing cocktail recipes and ingredients, and use machine learning algorithms to generate new combinations and flavors. This could help bartenders to come up with unique and creative cocktails that they may not have thought of on their own.
On the other hand, the use of AI tools could also potentially lead to a homogenization of the bar industry, with many bars offering similar menus and experiences. This could result in a lack of originality and individuality, leading to a less interesting and engaging bar scene.
So are we at the dawn of a new era of superpowered bartenders pushing creativity and bar experiences to new heights? I hope so. If you look at drinks on menus across the world, there’s a sameness creeping in. I mean, I like a good clarified Milk Punch served on a clear block of ice, but they’re everywhere now. And with or without AI, there will be a new next big thing in bars. It’ll start small, and it’ll take over the world, as it always has — just like the Tom Collins once did.
The Ultimate Tom Collins a la Bombay
- 50ml Bombay Citron Pressé
- 15ml lime juice
- 10ml sugar syrup
- soda to taste
- Add all ingredients to a highball glass.
- Add ice.
- Garnish with a lemon.
Recipe from Bombay Citron Pressé.
Made with a 100 percent natural fruit infusion, Bombay Citron Pressé uses Mediterranean lemons picked early in the season to create a vibrant and bright citrus-forward gin.