How Technology Has Changed Cocktail Culture

Jim Meehan on how technology has changed cocktail culture

Even the best food could use a dash of ones and zeros. Geek out with us as we explore the intersection of food and technology this month.

The other night, a young bartender at a competition I was judging told me he learned how to make a Manhattan by watching me on an instructional video that used to live in an app I was featured in called Speakeasy Cocktails: Learn from the Modern Mixologists. Open Air Publishing developed the title in 2011, followed by others on subjects like wine, bacon and photography, when hypertext links and embedded videos positioned apps to challenge the hegemony of traditional textbooks.

After modest sales over a few years, the company sold to a larger firm called Inkling in 2013, who made the decision not to reinvest in the engineering required to update the software to run on the latest iOS last year. The title has since disappeared from the App Store and will eventually end up being deleted by users frustrated by its buggy operation and tendency to crash. Dozens of bartenders all over the world from Moscow to Singapore, have congratulated and thanked me for the product over the years, and, thankfully, most of the videos are still available to view on YouTube. To give you a sense of its reach, my martini demo now has more than 125,000 views.

The story of Speakeasy Cocktails is not unlike a host of other technology that's fueled the information age one innovation at a time. I, myself, benefited from a novel bit of tech called Google Image Search in 2003, a new feature of the search engine I used to look up a bartender named Audrey Saunders after asking a friend to recommend she visit to my bar. It was all part of an elaborate plot to secure a job at a bar she was opening called the Pegu Club. And thanks to it, I spotted her when she walked in and was able to persuade her into ordering cocktails, though she and her table had just ordered wine with their dinner.

Image Search is just one of the many features that "pops up" when you google something now: just one of the ever-expanding cadre of "tools" we have at our fingertips, thanks to "smart" phones and high-speed internet access. While I grew up with a computer (the Apple IIc at home and IIe in school), floppy disks, dial-up internet speed much later and dot matrix printing are a far cry from the phones and tablets my daughter is growing up with. In addition to enhancing our lives, technology is changing the way we work and our workplaces themselves.

Before the days of lighting up a screen when we want engagement, people would go to bars for human interaction—both casual and intimate—also long before social media and dating apps altered human camaraderie and courtship. Beyond a text or voice message or a call itself, phones offered very little in the way of meaningful entertainment and remained in people's pockets when they visited with friends. Bartenders were fonts of factual information from where to eat and what to order (before Yelp) to how to get there (before Google Maps), along with supplying the political and sporting news most of us receive via Twitter, ESPN and news apps on our mobile devices these days.

I've somehow managed to skirt Facebook and have to remind myself that the reason I no longer "catch up" with old friends when we see each other is that they assume I'm fully "caught up" on Facebook. It's why I don't get invited to events or know which bartenders or brands are on the hot seats of ultra-engaged bartenders like Houston's Bobby Heugel, New York City's Giuseppe Gonzalez and Denver's Sean Kenyon. Like many bartenders, I'm a little OCD/ADD, which helps if I'm working a busy bar, but leaves me vulnerable to losing vast swaths of time on Twitter and Instagram if I'm not careful.

While I miss my former role as a human utility app, I was inefficient and often wrong. Today's technology has the capacity to connect an ever-increasing audience like never before. Being able to teach people I've never met how to make drinks is something I'm proud of, and it wouldn't have been possible without information technology, whose evolutionary life cycle brought it into the world via an app to where it lives now on YouTube, where either the videos or the platform they're shared on (or both or neither) will morph next.

Like this very technology, our critical and social faculties adapt with the tools we work with in the same fashion. Personally, I'm hoping they don't face the same fate as Speakeasy Cocktails.