[Content note for misogynist, racist and homophobic language]

It’s not often that I’ll go out of my way to write bad things about a hospitality business, unless it’s a paid reviewing gig and the place is hopelessly dreadful. But I’ll make an exception when the experience is actively repugnant and based upon a fundamentally flawed concept. That place is Orpheus, a new cocktail bar and restaurant in Allen St.

Keen to try out a new cocktail bar, six of us visited on Saturday night. We were somewhat sceptical of the DomPost’s claim that “born out of a revolutionary cocktail creation app that allows customers to concoct bespoke booze using a tablet, the establishment is the first of its kind in the world”, but were nevertheless open to seeing what happened. Once seated, we were offered a couple of iPads in lieu of menus, and some of us were given tutorials on how to use the app. That in itself was a worrying sign: if a user requires detailed instructions to order a drink (including “don’t press that button: it’ll close the app”), the app isn’t doing its job. But it’s what we found when we finally navigated the fiddly filters and bizarre “cocktail families” that really made our jaws drop in horror.

Without having to look far, we were confronted with some of the most racist, misogynist and homophobic drink names we’d ever encountered. We’re not talking about risqué cocktails such as Sex On The Beach or Screaming Orgasms: such things are tiresomely juvenile, but not derogatory. No, these included such gems as “Asian Fetish”, “Afghanistany (sic) Whore” and “Pillow Biter”. Some might say that these are just words, and we shouldn’t be too sensitive. But anyone who’s been the victim of violence or harassment while being called a whore or a pillow biter, or suffered from racial abuse or discrimination, will know that words are part of much wider systems of oppression, and can be actively harmful.

Now, I was far too polite and English (and to be fair, too privileged as a straight white man to have been on the receiving end of such slurs) to speak up at the time. But one of our group was not so cowardly, and demanded that the manager explain how such things ended up being presented to customers, why they thought it was acceptable, and what they planned to do about it. The response boiled down to two things: “but that’s what the cocktails are called!” and “we didn’t choose them; we got them from the internet”.

The first response suggests that they don’t really see a problem with the names, and that including these cocktails under their existing names is more important than not insulting their customers. However, I doubt that anyone would miss these far-from-classic concoctions if they were omitted, or object if the “Creamy Punani” were renamed to something less vile. It’s not like bowdlerising Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book.

The second response is an abdication of responsibility that also reveals an underlying flaw in their “revolutionary” approach. If we’d complained about some bad shellfish and been told “it’s not our problem; they came from the market like that,” we’d be rightly gobsmacked by their negligence. It’s a crucial role of any hospitality business to check the quality of what they’re presenting to customers, and that applies to language as well as ingredients. But Orpheus’ so-called “revolutionary” approach blindly outsources that responsibility to the formless morass of the internet, which anyone who runs a comments suggestion would tell you is a terrible idea.

To their credit, they immediately started removing some of the worst ones we mentioned. But that suggests that either they didn’t see the problem with the names until we complained, or they didn’t see them full stop. If the latter, then it means they’ve never even read the recipes, let alone tested them for taste, feasibility, presentation options and staff training. That would explain the quality of those we’d ordered at the start, few of which even aspired to mediocrity. Of course, how can they expect their bartenders to be experienced in making all 4000 or so cocktails in their app? They’ll just be having a stab in the dark, based on a downloaded recipe.

And here we reach the underlying structural problem with their approach, which tidying up the cocktail names (based on the radical notion that women, LGBTQI people, sex workers and people of colour are human beings worthy of respect) wouldn’t fix. Far from “a cocktail creation app that allows customers to concoct bespoke booze”, their app just applies some clunky filters to a long list of untested recipes of unknown origin, on the principle that quantity outweighs quality. The traditional role of bartenders in collating an appealing, balanced and inventive drinks list has been abandoned, replaced by the illusion that technology will offer consumers the late capitalist nirvana of infinite choice.

This philosophy is ascendant among Silicon Valley startup-bros, and it’s the same ideology that’s given us an internet drowning in clickbait, content mills and chum boxes, but with simple-minded and poorly designed filters in place of quasi-intelligent algorithms. It’s disruptive, in that it disrupts the “hospitality” aspect of the hospitality industry. It’s like Uber, but for undrinkable racist cocktails.

The bartender no longer gets to talk to a customer, discover their tastes, make recommendations, nod sagely at their life problems, discuss the best vermouth for a Martini, invent delicious new creations and generally express their humanity. Instead, an order presumably pops up on the screen, together with a recipe they’ve never seen before, and they mutely mix and shake their way through a shift as drink after drink is delivered to faceless consumers. It’s mixological Fordism: an assembly line of alcoholic mediocrity.

Even if they removed the egregiously hurtful cocktail names; even if they pared down their list to drinks they know work well; even if they fixed the UX nightmare of an app that doesn’t let you search by name but easily lets you miss the crucial step of actually ordering a drink; even then one would have to ask: what does this approach offer that established cocktail bars don’t?

It could be more efficient, if your idea of efficiency is being able to order by spirit type (from a very limited selection) within a category called “Real Men Don’t Cry”. We sometimes wish that some of our favourite bars weren’t quite so slow, but realise that artistry takes time. I can imagine situations where a large number of customers want to order cocktails they’ve never heard of before with the minimum of waiting time and human interaction: cruise ships, airports, backpacker bars, and chain pubs in suburban strip malls. But given that Orpheus intends to be “an artsy, cultural venue”, I really can’t see this approach being a winner.

Orpheus no doubt has some good people who could run a decent bar, and they don’t need my advice, but I’ll give it anyway. If you want to succeed with a new cocktail bar:

  • emphasise personal service rather than mechanised interfaces;
  • create your own unique cocktails, as well as doing the classics brilliantly;
  • don’t assume that your customers enjoy sniggering at the abuse of marginalised people;
  • employ talented staff, train them well and pay them (at least) a living wage;
  • trust your staff to collate a nuanced drinks offering, rather than scraping the worst recesses of the internet and getting that to do your work for you.