Marijuana compounds are making their way into mixed drinks.
Eight states now allow cannabis for recreational use: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Twenty-one other states permit marijuana for medicinal purposes. That means that more than half the country has legalized cannabis in some form. Denver even passed a city ordinance this year that allows consumption of marijuana edibles in bars and restaurants.
And while the U.S. government under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions seems unlikely to legalize cannabis on a federal level, there are signs that Congress may be more open to it, and states that have legalized are taking measures to protect themselves against federal anti-pot maneuvers.
Support for pot seems to be growing — not wilting.
As more customers experiment with legal cannabis and gain comfort and interest in the category, on-premise operators will need to figure out where they fit in and how to tailor their beverage programs. That may mean offering more lower- or no-alcohol drinks for guests partaking in pot, or developing cocktails that incorporate the legal compounds of the cannabis.
California legalized recreational marijuana in November, though medical marijuana use has been legal in the state since 1996. Two restaurants there, Gracias Madre in West Hollywood and Gratitude of Newport Beach—both owned by the vegan-centric company Love Serve Remember—already offered a number of drinks made with a marijuana tincture.
These tinctures do not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the primary mind-altering ingredient derived from the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant. Rather, they use CBD (cannabidiol), a lesser-known molecular compound found in cannabis with medicinal properties.
CBD is typically derived from the stalk of the cannabis plant and is legal for consumer purchase, explains Jason Eisner, beverage director for both restaurants. “CBD is anti-anxiety, an anti-depressant, a mood elevator,” he says. “It will make you feel fantastic, mentally.”
But it will not get you high, as CBD does not create psychoactive effects like THC does. This key difference between THC and CBD is what allows Gracias Madre and Gratitude to serve their cannabis cocktails.
These cocktails are not the equivalent of a joint or an edible, so customers should not expect to feel stoned, though they will experience the medicinal benefits of marijuana, Eisner explains.
“It’s like a heady indigo strain without the psychotropic effects,” he says. “Customers will feel happy, but will also be able to drive afterwards.”
Drinks With Buzz
Eisner adds CBD to his drinks through an olive-oil-based infusion so that the cannabis component separates from the rest of the cocktail and does not fully emulsify. “I want people to be able to see what we’re giving them,” he explains.
His cocktails have humorous names that nod to their special ingredient. For instance, The Rolled Fashioned is mezcal anejo, bourbon, house-made sarsaparilla and aromatic bitters.
The Stoney Negroni (pictured atop) contains gin, Carpano vermouth, Amaro Contratto Aperitivo, and a spoonful of port wine. And the Sour T-iesel is made with tequila blanco, lime, agave, mint, matcha and aquafaba (water in which legume seeds such as chickpeas have been cooked; it’s used as a substitue for egg white in drinks). The CBD-tinged cocktails at Gracias Madre and Gratitude sell for $20.
The concept of cannabis cocktails is still so new that some guests do not know what to expect. “A lot of people would not anticipate to drink three or four of these cocktails and leave feeling great,” Eisner says.
Strains With Unique Terroir
Eisner first experimented with CBD from a purely culinary angle. That the drug also gave his drinks a strong medicinal effect was an unanticipated benefit.
The CBD that Eisner uses is “super floral” in aroma, he says, “like opening a fresh bag of [OG] Kush,” the strain of cannabis often used for medical marijuana. Contrary to what some customers may expect, this CBD is not skunky in aroma like the smell of certain cannabis.
“If we wanted it to be skunky, we could do that. Marijuana varieties are just as complex as any wine terroir on earth, and give you as many options,” Eisner explains. “The current strain I’m using is like fresh-cut weed grass: herbal, floral, like something freshly picked.”
Indeed, cannabis flavors vary widely, says cocktail book author Warren Bobrow, who last June released Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics: The Art of Spirited Drinks and Buzz-Worthy Libations.
Growers cultivate the plant in thousands of different strains and continuously develop new ones. This opens a world of possibilities for cocktails.
Commonly known strains include Maui Waui, the aforementioned OG Kush and Sour Diesel. “Imagine each strain as its own terroir,” Bobrow says. “Some are spicy, sweet, piney or fruity.”
Bobrow recommends ingredient pairings based on cannabis strains. For instance, Sour Diesel mixes well with absinthe or aged rum. OG Kush is a mtach with most clear spirits, while Maui Waui can be muddled with grilled lemon.
Beyond this rainbow of flavors, strains contain different medicinal qualities. Sour Diesel relieves stress and anxiety, Bobrow explains, while Pineapple Kush is an efficient sleep aid. The strain Thin Mint Cookie can remedy stomach ailments. Other strains work as physical pain relievers, libido enhancers and energy boosters.
Bobrow’s book also covers cannabis basics, including the important distinction between the two most common species of the plant. Cannabis sativa promotes an active mental high, compared with cannabis indica, which induces sleep.
Mixing With THC
There may come a time when recreational cannabis is federally legalized. But until then, serving cocktails with THC in bars or restaurants is illegal. And for those that privately experiment with marijuana-mixed drinks, carefulness is advised. There is risk of overdosing, particularly with edibles, and the combination of alcohol and pot can exacerbate the negative effects of both.
Too much THC can cause negative side effects, such as paranoia and anxiety. When it comes to mixing cannabis into cocktails, “less is more,” Bobrow says.
“Let your body be your guide, but keep a close eye on the dosages,” Bobrow notes. “If you’re newer to cannabis, then go light.” He urges no more than one cannabis cocktail per hour for people starting off.
Eisner of Gracias Madre and Gratitude has been experimenting with TCH-potent drinks and edibles in his spare time (recipes he cannot legally serve at either restaurant). He believes he has certain critical aspects down to a science.
“I’ve been playing around with a grading scale to allow people to understand exactly what they’re taking so they can have a great experience and be in control the whole time,” Eisner says. “I’m also playing around with ways to make the cannabis effects happen quicker, so that it hits you in five to 10 minutes, instead of the 90 minutes with some edibles.”
One reason so many people have had bad experiences consuming marijuana, Eisner believes, is because its long history of being illegal has stymied culinary experimentation. As cannabis becomes legal in more states, and consumers through experience gain fluency with serving sizes, Eisner thinks there will be fewer cases of accidental overdoses.
For bartenders who don’t want to make their own cannabis mixers, commercial products are starting to crop up. For instance, all-natural cannabis beverage maker Le Herb in August released a line of cannabis cocktail mixers. Distributed in select dispensaries in legalized states, the company says Le Herbe cannabis cocktail mixers can be poured on the rocks, served as shots or mixed with spirits.
And Ruby Cannabis Sugar, made with organic cane sugar and cannabinoids, hit the market last year as a way to sweeten beverages and add THC.
Making Marijuana-infused Ingredients
In his book, Bobrow explains how to make THC-infused tonics, syrups, shrubs, bitters, butters and oil. Before attempting any of his recipes, Bobrow recommends decarbing raw cannabis. This activates the psychoactive properties within the plant, and enhances natural flavors.
Decarbing cannabis requires gentle heating or drying; smokers cover this step by lighting the cannabis. Boiling the plant or baking it in the oven both work, Bobrow says.
For infusions, place 7 grams of ground, decarbed cannabis into the liquor you want to infuse in an unsealed, heat-proof mason jar. Put the jar in the top of a double boiler on a hot plate or electric stovetop. Simmer lightly at around 160° F for 30 to 60 minutes.
Let the mixture cool, strain it, then funnel it all back into the original liquor container. Top off the bottle with un-infused liquor to make sure the THC is evenly dispersed.
Tinctures are more concentrated versions of infusions. The steps are the same, Bobrow says, but involve another four hours of cooking over low heat, until the liquid has been reduced by about three-quarters.
Humboldt’s Hemp Day
As marijuana gains greater acceptance and becomes legal in more states, beverage alcohol producers will likely look to get into the cannabis game. Some craft distilleries have already launched cannabis-influenced products.
Like bars and restaurants, distilleries cannot sell products that contain THC. But they can add in legal-grade hemp.
Humboldt’s Finest is hemp-infused vodka made in Humboldt County, California. That area is already well known for its marijuana industry, explains owner/head distiller Abe Stevens, so he felt compelled to produce something with “the local flavor.”
Humboldt’s Distillery sources legal hemp from southern Oregon. This lends the vodka a fresh, botanical, aromatic quality, Stevens says, which is a “unique new component for making cocktails.” Humboldt’s Finest is a hoppy, botanical alternative for the juniper taste of gin.
The hemp-infused, 40-proof vodka launched in mid 2016 and sells in California and Colorado for $29.99 per 750-ml. bottle. “The response has been good,” Stevens says, though it does require some education. Consumers need to understand that the vodka will not get them stoned, and it won’t get them in trouble with the law.
Cannabis Acceptance Climbs
Bobrow believes that marijuana’s long-existing national stigma will delay federal legalization. He recalls growing up in the Northeast, where attitudes toward marijuana trended negative.
“People have been using marijuana [on the West Coast] in a culinary fashion for a long time,” Eisner says. “Back East, there is a huge stigma. And there’s a whole generation that talks about marijuana like it’s cocaine. There’s absolutely a generational gap.”
The new generation does not believe in the old marijuana propaganda, “and instead sees the reality of marijuana and its health benefits,” Eisner adds. “Millennials are going to fully legalize cannabis within the next decade.”
Parent company Love Serve Remember reacted with trepidation at first when Eisner pitched his cocktails. But his enthusiasm for the project convinced the company to trust him, “and it worked out to our benefit.”
Eisner sees his cocktails as part of the overall movement towards broader national acceptance of cannabis. “I think we’re on the precipice of something huge here.”
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz.