London Cocktail Week

Will tech kill the cocktail bar?

By Molly Flatt 5 October 2015
London Cocktail Week is taking place at 250 bars across the capital this week.

As London Cocktail Week hits town, Molly Flatt examines the new tech companies pandering to at-home mixologists.

Over the next seven evenings, thousands of Londoners will flood the city streets to take advantage of the discounts, events and special edition drinks offered as part of London Cocktail Week.

But this year a surprising number of Negroni-hounds might choose to mark the occasion from the comfort of their own living rooms.

In 2013, for the first time, people in the UK spent more on drinking at home than in bars, and several businesses have sprung up in the past few months with one common aim: to transform barflies into armchair mixologists.

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“Nobody gets up in the morning and decides that what they really need is a cocktail subscription service,” admits Mark Jennings, CEO of London-based startup Shaken.

“We’re creating a market from scratch. We believe the latent demand is there, but we have to do a lot of explaining to demonstrate our value to each potential customer. When they try it, they love it, so that gives us a lot of confidence.”

Emulating the success of subscription-based delivery companies such as Graze and Naked Wines, Shaken – which swiftly overshot its crowdfunding target this March – offers monthly mail-order DIY cocktails.

The standard £24 package will secure you enough premium spirits, mixers and bespoke recipes to make five drinks, with quality assured by Shaken advisor Dick Bradsell, the renowned bartender and inventor of the Espresso Martini.

So who are the early adopters?

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of couples who, for financial or family reasons, can’t go out on the town as often as they used to,” Jennings explains. “Shaken brings the bar to them. We’re also seeing a lot of enthusiastic singles of both genders who just love to explore food and drink.”

The model obviously has appeal. Shaken is growing fast, already stocking boxes in prestige retailers including Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, while similar propositions have been popping up in the US.

Cocktail Courier, which launched in January, now delivers both à la carte and by subscription to 40 states, while this month saw both SaloonBox (a San Francisco-based service pushing a $35 two-recipe monthly kit) and Instapour (“you’re one click away from happy hour!”) initiate Kickstarter campaigns.

Mix Mojitos with a machine

Lazier and thirstier enthusiasts might prefer to invest in a Bartesian, a single-capsule cocktail machine created by two engineers out of Ontario’s Velocity Foundry incubator programme.

This naughty Nespresso offers six capsules in classic flavours such as Margarita as well as signature blends such as Bartesian Breeze, which are then combined with shots from four canisters of spirits at your preferred strength to produce “the perfect cocktail”.

A variation on the same theme comes from LA-based SomaBar. A sleeker, sexier beast than the Bartesian, SomaBar has the added bonus of app control. This not only allows users to programme bespoke cocktails on-screen using SomaBar’s multiple liquor and mixer pod options, but encourages them to share and rate recipes with others willing to shell out $429.

A cheaper and more portable tech hack is the MixStik, a ruler-like device striped with LEDs. Hold the MixStik against your glass, connect it to your smartphone via Bluetooth, then select a cocktail recipe from the app and let it guide what and how much you should pour: lemon juice to the top of the green LEDs, vodka over the white, and so on.

Just last week MixStik secured full Kickstarter funding in just two days, so the $39 price tag could well make it this year’s must-have grown-up Christmas toy.

Google a Gimlet

Even the casual drinker unwilling to commit to subscriptions and gadgets can now whip up a White Russian on a whim.

Google’s new Knowledge Graph system, which incorporates semantic search information from multiple sources to deliver more useful results, means that a query such as ‘How do I make a Martini?’ now returns a handy sidebar callout listing the drink’s ingredients, a step-by-step preparation guide, serving and garnishing suggestions, and even a nod to the appropriate glassware.

So are multiple home-made Orgasms about to replace our Saturday-night Sex on the Beach? Probably not.

However alluring exotic at-home cocktails might seem on a rainy Monday, it is highly unlikely that we’ll ditch the sociability, inventiveness and glamour of our local speakeasies any time soon. And Shaken’s Jennings is adamant that these services are a win-win for both entrepreneurs and the traditional trade.

“We see the cocktail industry as being in a similar position to the coffee industry 15 years ago. You could go out and get a decent drink, but at home, nobody had the knowledge or equipment to make a proper brew,” he explains. “As our collective expectations of coffee standards have risen, so has our spending on coffee at home and on the high street.”

“So we see Shaken’s role as supporting the on-trade’s cocktail business: we’re educating the consumer and supporting them in trying new things. If they discover a cocktail in one of our boxes, they’re much more likely to order it on a night out instead of a pint.”

Surely we can all raise a dewy highball to that.