Thrown out of work by COVID, a B.C. bartender reinvents the cocktail recipe book

After Jean-Marc Dykes got laid off from his Vancouver bartending gig at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he created a visually driven app for cocktail recipes.

Credit: Imbiblia

With Imbiblia, Jean-Marc Dykes has created an easy-to-use mobile app that turns hundreds of drinks into quickly accessible graphics

After Jean-Marc Dykes got laid off from his Vancouver bartending gig at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he didn’t kick back and relax. Far from it.

“When March 2020 rolled around and suddenly I didn’t have a job, and the Canadian government was very generously helping prop up everyone from this industry with CERB, I saw that a lot of people from the industry sort of just sat back and were going to wait for it to be over,” Dykes recalls. “And I saw it as my golden opportunity.”

A Boston native who holds an English literature degree from UBC, Dykes had already been thinking about moving into a new line of work after logging more than a decade as a bartender. He was also interested in coding. So when the lockdown started, the self-described “hermit” began spending eight to 12 hours a day learning to program a computer. “I really became a coder over the pandemic,” Dykes says. “I didn’t waste a single moment.”

With his new skills, Dykes began work on a big project he’d been mulling since long before the pandemic: an easy-to-use mobile app for cocktail recipes. Anyone who’s tended bar knows where such recipes typically live—and it isn’t a nice place.

“In a sticky binder, which I’ve always found infuriating—for a bunch of reasons,” Dykes explains for the uninitiated. “They’re not easy to maintain, and when you’re slammed behind the bar, especially at last call at 12 Dark 30 at night, and you’re flying and you’ve got a ton of drinks that you’ve got to get through, and then you forget that one tiny ingredient that’s in a Hanky Panky, the last thing you want to do is turn around, open up a cabinet and start flipping through a sticky binder so you can scan a block of text just to find the one thing that you can’t remember.”

Credit: Imbiblia

Imbiblia recipe cards

A baseball card for cocktails

Thinking there must be a better way, Dykes wondered how he could filter out all of the information a bartender doesn’t need. “So I was like, why can’t recipes be visual? There’s a difference between reading a recipe and seeing a recipe.”

The result was Imbiblia, a visually driven tool that turns drink recipes into graphics. “I’ve known for a long time that our brains compute shape and colour way faster than reading some text that communicates the exact same information,” Dykes says. “Children recognize the Golden Arches at McDonald’s way before they can read the word. So I was like, well, can we turn a cocktail recipe into a visual sort of hieroglyphic so that it can be computed faster?”

He also decided that barkeeps should have this tool in their pocket, on their phones. “All bartenders have their phones on them anyway, no matter how disgruntled a manager is about it,” Dykes says. “And of course, in a digital format, searching through these things can be way, way faster than flipping through a traditional book.”

Dykes set out to make Imbiblia, whose Latin-inspired name means “drink book,” accessible to everyone, but geared toward making life easier for that harried bartender.

“So for example, checking that one little ingredient in a Hanky Panky, it takes three taps on Imbiblia, and one of those taps is opening the actual app,” he says. “And when you bring up the recipe card, because of that little pie chart, it instantly gives you a visual understanding of the ratios of the ingredients. All you have to do is look for the smallest sliver in that pie chart, and you see, Oh, I was forgetting it was fernet.”

Although there are other cocktail apps, Dykes figured he had good reason to create his own: “I’ve never, ever had another bartender talk to me about another cocktail recipe app, or mention one or recommend one.”

Besides, no other such apps are set up like Imbiblia, he adds. “A lot of them are just taking that sticky binder, which is blocks of text, and then sticking it into some sort of app form.” Also, many cocktail apps require the user to scroll down to see the whole recipe, Dykes says. “It was really important to me that everything is in the screen when you bring it up, so that it works as kind of like a baseball card.”

In addition to the coding, Dykes did all of the design work for Imbiblia himself, drawing on his previous summer job as a teacher at a private art school he attended as a child, as well as his love of drawing, painting and sculpture. The only backup he got was from a friend who helped him cross-reference hundreds of classic cocktail recipes across about 75 books. Imbiblia features some 450 recipe cards, but because some drinks are repeated to make them easier to search, its total number of cocktails is roughly 400.

Design decisions

Dykes, who grew Imbiblia’s Instagram following to create a community before launching this fall, has been speaking with bartenders in Brazil, Russia and elsewhere. “A lot of them are intuiting features of version 2.0 that I want to continue building and hopefully deploy at some point in the future,” he says. But for now, anyway, Dykes is keeping it simple with what he calls a lean and fast initial release. “If this thing continues to grow, even slowly, I’m going to take that as a sign that I should keep developing it.”

He also has a new career to keep him busy. Using Imbiblia as a calling card, Dykes recently landed a job as a user experience/user interface designer with the Vancouver office of enterprise artificial intelligence firm AI Dynamics.

The design aspects of a digital product are the easiest parts to code but the toughest to settle on, he maintains. “Deciding how something should look and how it should change based on what are users clicking to make it intuitive, none of that is straightforward at all. It’s kind of like sculpting, in my mind.”

But when it comes to design, Dykes knows what not to do. “I keep telling people that I want everything that I do digitally to be the exact opposite of an Adobe product,” he says. “If something needs a tutorial to use, the designers have failed, in my opinion.”