The Cocktail Computer Calculates What to Make with What You Have
Lily Szajnberg loves making cocktails at home. She’s got innumerable cocktail recipe books and an enviable home bar, stocked with just about all the bottles you’d need. But she found herself overwhelmed by seemingly limitless options and no means of easily narrowing them down. Among her friends, she noticed a different issue — they were intimidated by the prospect of home bartending, unsure of what ingredients to keep around or how to make a good cocktail.
Szajnberg envisioned a solution to both problems. She’d invent a device that would help the cocktail-savvy determine what they wanted to make with either minimal or extravagant ingredient lists. Simultaneously, her invention would help novice home bartenders with a limited selection of ingredients find simple, delicious cocktails with instructions on how to make them.
After much research and deliberation, Szajnberg came up with the Cocktail Computer: a device that tells you which of 100+ curated cocktail recipes you can make with which of the 24 base bar ingredients you have on-hand. She launched the product on Kickstarter, and come August, they’ll be shipped out to happy backers across the land. And at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, you can meet Szajnberg and place your own order for a Cocktail Computer. She told us all we need to know about this trusty new contraption:
One of the appeals of the Cocktail Computer is its charming retro look — how did you come up with the design?
As someone who works at the intersection of art and technology, I was very hung up on creating an elegant solution for finding classic cocktail recipes, while also communicating an at-home bar essentials list.
While I was brainstorming various solutions to this problem, a friend of mine, unaware of said brainstorming, mentioned a now-defunct product she had found at a tag sale that used “punched cards” – the original method for programming computers — to select recipes.
There is this wonderful lo-fi simplicity to punched cards that is still the backbone of technology we use today. We use it on e-commerce all of the time, filtering searches based on the key elements we want.
I loved the concept of using technology from the golden age of cocktails.
I used the punched cards as the building block for the Cocktail Computer, which dictated the size, shape, and basic functionality. To further refine the design, I was focused on finding reliable, classy, accessible brands from the 1950s and 60s. I kept coming back to 1950s Chevys and the KitchenAid mixing stand. Both products have a classic visual look. Both brands are reliable. Both are tools that don’t feel like tools. These were the visual inspiration for the Cocktail Computer design.
The last piece of the design was the little bit of whimsy the Cocktail Computer was lacking. For that, I spent hours looking at children’s toys from the 50s. While the Cocktail Computer is first and foremost a tool, it is also a toy. I kept seeing “starburst” being used across 1950s toy packaging. That ended up being the proverbial (maraschino) cherry on top of the Cocktail Computer. As soon as I integrated that into the design, I knew that was the missing piece.
What kind of research went into making your invention?
Lots of on-the-ground research, which is a delicious data collection method. During my research period, I was shuttling between Nashville and NYC regularly for my day job. Both cities have fantastic and cutting-edge bar scenes where I was able to research extensively. I was also in the midst of a personal goal to travel to all 50 states before my 30th birthday, so my research included watering holes from Maine to Hawaii. I can't tell you how many bartenders I chatted up, asking what tools they use, which brands of tools they prefer, asking to taste any liquors they were using that I hadn't heard of or couldn't get my hands on, and taking extensive notes. From there I kept an ongoing spreadsheet with every cocktail I had tried. I also spent countless hours combing through my library of cocktail books (which became the go-to gift for me from all friends and family), and cross-referencing my favorite websites to fine tune recipes.
Once I had an exhaustive list of cocktails, I started mapping common ingredients. There were clearly about 25 common ingredients. To figure out the magic number and list, I tasked my favorite bartenders with the exercise of coming up with less than 30 essential ingredients for their bar. From that emerged a clear list of 24 ingredients from which almost any cocktail can be created.
Using my essentials list, I pared back my list of ~300+ cocktails to ~100+ cocktails.
From there, I put Google to work and searched each of my 24 ingredients to discover what the general populace is looking for to ensure I hadn’t left off any popular cocktails the world is searching for.
Lastly, I did some user-testing, asking my friends and bartenders to proof the list and confirm there were essential recipes in there that they expected as well as a few fun surprises.
In regards to the design, I sent out surveys to about 50+ colleagues who worked in design, liquor, and everywhere in between to find the best color and font for the computer. Teal was the clear front-runner, but we had some close runners-up. As I mentioned above, I spent a lot of time on Pinterest researching mid-century modern appliances, toys, and cars for design inspiration.
What has the process of promoting and selling the computer via Kickstarter been like?
It’s been incredibly interesting. I ran a Kickstarter for my a cappella group in 2011 when the platform was still in its nascent stages. Since then, a whole industry has popped up around Kickstarter campaigns. I was inundated with emails from third parties pushing their press reach and promising a successful campaign in exchange for a few hundred dollars. It was a lot of noise I wasn’t expecting. Additionally, the quality and quantity of campaigns has grown as exponentially as the platform has. You can’t launch anything half-assed and expect success, even if you get all of your friends on board.
Having run a successful Kickstarter campaign before, I knew I had to have my ducks in a row before launching. I spent a lot of time reading up on similar successful campaigns, using some of their same tactics. I built up excitement within my close circle of friends before the launch, and then spent a lot of time reaching out to press for coverage. There’s a lot of noise online at any given time, and you’ve only got 30 days to rise to the top and hit your goal. It’s a month-long full-time job.
What was really exciting was that about 80% of my backers were total strangers to me. Kickstarter is a great way to test the market in real time. A successfully funded campaign means a dedicated group of early adopters and evangelists, as well as proof of market demand.
To be honest, running a Kickstarter is really intensive and stressful, but it’s definitely worthwhile if you have done your research. I did a write-up on my experience on Medium a few days before my campaign finished that I think sums up the experience nicely.
What bar staples are you never without?
My home bar is typically bursting at the seams with countless amari, bourbons, rums, gin, tequila and absinthe. However, you would be hard-pressed to find me without bourbon, bitters, lemons and a paring knife. With some practice, you can make almost any garnish with a paring knife in a pinch, and at the end of a long day, I often just want a nice glass of bourbon or rye with a dash of bitters.
What's your favorite recipe in the computer?
I love all of my recipes equally, but if I had to pick, I’d have to say the Mint Julep. I served juleps at my wedding and it is a drink that seems simple, but the devil is in the details. I spent the most time on that recipe getting it exactly right. Plus, how can you not love a minty bourbon snow cone?
Have you found yourself making cocktails you'd otherwise never have if not for the computer? If so, what have been some of your best discoveries?
I did a lot of on the ground research for about two years leading up to the actual pen to paper writing of the recipe cards. I tried to keep with cocktails that have a few years under their belt. After compiling an exhaustive list of cocktails I knew I wanted to feature — the first draft had just shy of 300 recipes — I pared those down and looked for cocktails that filled the gaps. I'm not much of a vodka drinker for example, so I had to focus on hunting down vodka cocktails. But the two that stand out to me that both feature liquors I love are the Hanky Panky and the Decepticon. They are both in my rotation now and I'm very grateful for it. There are a few others that I discovered and am excited about, but those are under wraps for now.
Are you excited for people to finally have their preordered Cocktail Computers? What's it been like to have such a long period of anticipation?
If I could hand-deliver every Cocktail Computer right now, I would. I’m beyond excited to get the computers out and see how they get used. My favorite part of creating anything is seeing how people interact with it. There are always some behaviors you just can’t anticipate and that to me is the best part. I’m also interested to see which recipes resonate the most with our users.
I am really lucky to have such a dedicated and patient group of backers. Physical manufacturing is inherently slow and unforgiving. Our backers have expressed only excitement in receiving their computers and literally zero complaints. You can’t ask for a better group of customers than that. It only reinforces our commitment to as perfect a product as possible.
Do you already have another invention in the works?
The Cocktail Computer has some exciting next steps in the works. This deck of cards is just the first batch of recipes and we’ve got some delicious updates coming down the line. You can also expect to see some colorful new developments.
What's the best hidden feature of the Cocktail Computers?
Although the Cocktail Computer is primarily focused on cocktails, the core of its spirit is making everyone a part of the party. Whether you don’t care for liquor, are pregnant, or are the responsible designated driver, you should still get to enjoy a fancy and delicious libation. We have included several virgin recipes for mocktails in our card deck to ensure everyone has a recipe they can enjoy.
Will the Cocktail Computers be for sale at Tales (and will you be there)?
I am thrilled to be doing a Meet the Makers session on Thursday and will be doing pre-sales at the Market during the festival. You can also check out the Cocktail Computer in the brand new Barman’s Suite next to the pool. The very first batch of Cocktail Computers will be shipping in August, so anyone who orders theirs at Tales will be one of the very first to have a Cocktail Computer. We are also going to be offering some exclusive swag to everyone who purchases a computer at Tales.