The last place you’d expect to put back a few futuristic cocktails is in an abandoned Amtrak station located in an industrial area of Oakland. I was at the historic 16th Station, a decayed Beaux-Arts era building, watching patiently as a twelve-inch long robotic arm squirted small spherical drops of lemon oil into a bourbon-based cocktail. With the initial droplets suspended in the middle of the drink, the robot continued the printing process, moving in concentric circles until a larger, 3-dimensional sphere formed. When I swirled the drink in my hand, the 3D object remained perfectly suspended in the liquid.
My friend and I took a sip. He said the taste and texture reminded him of his grandmother’s sweet tea that he’d greedily chug during family visits to Georgia. Smooth yet fruity, with a strangely oily mouthfeel, the drink of the future reminded me of the past—the neon orange colored peach flavored punch served in waxy paper cups at my childhood haunt, Glen’s Fabulous Sandwiches in Victoria, British Columbia.
A blend of Bulleit bourbon, Chardonnay grapes, rosemary and peach with notes of lemon; this 3D printed cocktail is the creation of Austrian robotics pioneer Benjamin Greimel and local Bay Area mixologist Elmer Mejicanos. The pair were commissioned by Bulleit Bourbon to create a cocktail that blends familiar flavors with 3D printing techniques.
Mejicanos is no stranger to creating unique beverage concepts. A veteran of the Bay Area food and beverage scene, he’s opened more than a dozen bars across San Francisco and Oakland, including most recently, Hotel Via and the rooftop at 25 Lusk.
Passionate about farm to table cuisine and rustic flavors, Mejicanos was excited by the prospect of merging his love for locally sourced ingredients with high-tech 3D printing technology. “I wanted to create a simple, balanced cocktail but with a very futuristic presentation,” says Mejicanos. He says the drink (named “the Bulleit Bourbon ‘Beta Test’ 3D-printed cocktail) “hits both angles.”
Indeed, it is refreshing and sweet, with just enough tart and herbal notes to keep it from being saccharine. While visually mesmerizing, the actual cocktail is “still very traditional,” says Mejicanos. It’s made of a simple blend of natural ingredients, carefully calibrated for density, viscosity, temperature and alcohol content—all key factors when 3D printing liquids.
The ‘Beta Test’ relies on technology developed by Greimel, the creator of Print a Drink—the world’s first device for printing complex 3D shapes into drinkable liquids. After the base cocktail is mixed by Mejicanos, it’s placed under the robotic arm of the device, which then adds the 3D printed elements. Depending on the complexity of the pattern, this process takes anywhere from 20 to 90 seconds.
Edible 3D printed objects are certainly nothing new. There’s PancakeBot, a device that prints pancake designs directly onto a griddle and the ChefJetPro, a 3D printer with the ability to create a variety of different forms out of sugar. However, unlike other 3D food printers, which build up objects layer by layer, the Print a Drink “uses a high-end industrial robot to accurately inject microliter-drops of edible liquid into a cocktail. Because of this special method, it is possible that the drops float inside the cocktail to create 3D objects,” says Greimel.
The easiest way to think of the Print a Drink is like a high-tech version of an old-school dot matrix printer. It prints small spherical dots into a liquid to create a larger three dimensional whole. From spheres and spirals to printed text, the device can be programmed to create any simple geometric shape. However, Greimel is hoping to increase the resolution for the next prototype.
There’s a satisfying hypnotic quality to watching the Print a Drink in action, similar to how it feels to slowly pop a sheet of bubble wrap. But do 3D printed cocktails have a place in regular ol’ bars of the not-so-distant future?
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Greimel thinks so. There’s already science-themed bars like Brisbane’s Viscosity that serves molecular mixology creations like “the membrane shooter” (a trippy cocktail that looks like it was pulled from the set of “Battlestar Galactica”) and Cafe ArtScience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is known for a distillation process that creates clouds of flavor that hover over their cocktails (an Old Fashioned with Negroni “floating over it,” anyone?), that seems to prove there’s a market for whimsical, high-tech drinks lacing in an element of performance. (Plus, this technology is basically made for Instagram. Let’s face it.)
While other drink robots exist—like the Makr Shakr, a digitally controlled device with the ability to make over 10,000 drink combinations—Greimel’s Print a Drink is currently the only one with the ability to print 3D shapes into alcohol. The appeal of 3D printed cocktails like the ‘Beta Test’ is the stimulating visual experience they create, both as they’re being made and while the drink is in your hand.
While you likely won’t see 3D printed cocktails at your local dive bar any time soon, Greimel is developing a prototype with high-end restaurants and the entertainment industry in mind. He foresees restaurant and bar owners wanting to make the investment once they realize the enormous potential —not only for innovative cocktails, but for marketing and social media exposure. Afterall, why include a hashtag in your next Instagram post when you can have it printed right in your drink?
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Header image courtesy of Print A Drink