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The virtuous, mail-order, bot-shaken future of booze

Cocktail robots, frozen-alcohol poptails, and scorpion-spiced liquor have arrived. Powdered alcohol and a new abstinence are coming next.

By Glenn McDonald

Western civilization has a long and fundamentally ambivalent relationship with alcohol. Ancient Rome issued wine rations to even the lowliest of prisoners and slaves, yet also considered wine such a public health problem that Emperor Domitius Ulpinus once ordered the destruction of half of the empire’s vineyards. America famously attempted its own radical solution to the same problem with Prohibition, the least popular constitutional amendment in the history of the republic.

These days, of course, alcohol is among the very biggest of Big Business concerns. Americans drink around three billion liters of booze each year, according to the World Health Organization. About 50 percent is malted beverages (beer, mostly), with distilled spirits at around 28 percent, wine at 20 percent, and strange little drinks edging in at the corners — more on those in a bit. The numbers have been relatively stable for decades, although specific market percentages spike and drop with passing trends and fashions. Who remembers Zima?

Still, social trends and emerging technologies are colliding to spin off new ways to make, mix, package, and drink alcoholic beverages. What’s more, there’s evidence that younger generations may be developing an altogether different attitude toward alcohol. Let’s take a peek into our boozy future. Please read responsibly.

Try scorpion vodka — if you dare

Market Forces 

One prediction is pretty much a 100 percent lock — we’re going to have plenty of alcoholic options in the near future. In recent years, all manner of craft beers, boutique liquors, hard ciders, and small-scale wines have swamped the alcoholic beverage industry. Brand loyalty is on the decline, too. A recent Nielsen survey suggests that just 24 percent of millennials look for a particular brand when shopping for booze. For baby boomers, it’s 52 percent.

Efficiencies in distribution and marketing have also made it easier for little guys to get in the game.

One recent success story is frozen alcohol-infused poptails, which come in flavors including sparkling prosecco, cranberry mojito, and white coconut sangria.

Other drinks on the rise include spiked seltzers and canned wines. Then you’ve got your weirdo niche products: pumpkin wine, say, or pizza beer. (You first.) The insane courageous may wish to try scorpion vodka. Each bottle contains a farm-bred, detoxified, edible scorpion. This is how empires crumble.

Two major food-and-beverage industry trends are also guiding the booze business. The first is health consciousness: young buyers tend to eat healthy, and they want to drink healthy, too. The second is called conscious consumption: shoppers want products that promote social good (or at least appear to). We can expect a boom in small-market alcoholic options that emphasize choice, health, and feel-good stories. Michigan’s Virtue Cider is a useful case study. A small-scale startup in small-town Fennville, the company stresses traditional cidermaking processes and partnerships with local farmers. It’s also got a distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch, but that’s what small print was invented for.

This flat plastic wine bottle from Garcon Wines is designed to fit through your mail slot.

Boozy Tech 

Science newshounds may remember headlines in 2014 that suggested chemists had developed powdered alcohol. Not quite. The process, actually developed more than 50 years ago in Japan, essentially produces microscopic capsules that contain drops of alcohol so tiny, they’re measured in micrometers. The capsule material is water-soluble, so just add water and you’re in business — or not. Regulators and market obstacles have put the kibosh on “powdered alcohol” as a commercial product for now. You can make your own, though — “Popular Science” even published a recipe — and it’s likely that it’ll eventually make its way to market.

A home-delivery strategy for outsmarting porch pirates: a flat plastic wine bottle designed to slip through your mail slot.

Emerging technology is also affecting the alcohol industry in more immediate ways. The so-called “Amazon effect” has led shoppers to expect online ordering and home delivery, and that goes for booze, too. Several mobile delivery services, such as Drizly and Klink, provide door-to-door delivery of alcoholic products, GrubHub style, and that’s on top of long-existing “wine-of-the-month”-type subscription outfits. The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association predicts that expanded home delivery is the single biggest technological change coming to the alcohol industry. London-based Garcon Wines has even developed a strategy for outsmarting porch pirates: a flat plastic wine bottle designed to slip through your mail slot.

Robotic bartenders mix it up aboard Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Wire 

Robotic Bartenders 

On the gadgety end of things, dedicated drinkers can expect to see personal liquor filters that purport to turn cheap booze into top-shelf liquor by filtering out impurities. (There’s not a lot of science to back up the claims for now, but perhaps future filters will be more convincing.) Oenophiles will see more high-tech gadgets designed to preserve and chill wine. Beer lovers may want to check out new dispenser technology that fills glasses from the bottom up.

Of course, no discussion of future technology is complete without robots. Robotic bartending systems have been popping up in Vegas, in Prague, even on the high seas. The technology has migrated to home use surprisingly fast. If the industry has its way, no home will be complete without a cocktail-bot in the kitchen.

Dry Forecast 

Finally, a growing pile of evidence suggests the future of booze might go another way entirely. According to a report by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, alcohol consumption per capita has declined significantly in many Western countries due to rapidly shifting cultural attitudes. The quick takeaway: Booze just isn’t that cool anymore with the kids.

Problematic alcohol consumption has been in decline over the last 10 to 15 years in most of Europe, according to the Copenhagen report. In the U.K., the proportion of binge drinkers age 16 to 24 has decreased from 29 percent to 18 percent over the last 10 years, while young teetotalers jumped from 19 percent to 27 percent. In Australia, an even more pronounced generational shift is underway, as government-sponsored campaigns aim to change the country’s notorious drinking culture. Hard numbers in the U.S. are more difficult to come by, but reports suggest that young Americans are drinking up to 20 percent less alcohol per capita than previous generations.

Likely reasons for the declining popularity of alcohol include an increase in descendants from Muslim and other non-imbibing backgrounds, a cultural reaction to the many ill effects of excessive alcohol consumption, a decrease in disposable income, and the liberalization of marijuana laws. One interesting theory that’s gaining traction: Social media and voluntary surveillance culture may be scaring people away from overindulgence. There are just too many cameras around, and drinking-and-texting is a notorious 3 a.m. hazard.

If the future of booze looks a little blurry, well, that’s entirely predictable, isn’t it? As usual, Homer Simpson said it best: “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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