Photo illustration: Jeremy Allen/Bloomberg Business; cannabis leaf: David Malan/Getty Images

The Next Hot Ingredient in Cocktails: Cannabis

In which we coin the phrase “cannabitters”

Alcohol has been my drug of choice since my very first White Russian. From guilty pleasure drinks to perfectly crisp martinis, something about the ritual of making and sipping a cocktail had me sold early on. 

I never gave marijuana much love, and even in college, I always chose watery beer over those fat, clumsy joints. But now that bartenders across the country are experimenting with weed-spiked cocktails, I’m paying attention—as should you. The “Julia Child of Weed” has already been anointed, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before we discover the “Charles H. Baker of Marijuana.”  

Absinthe Tunel Cannabis (left) and Alaska Distillery Purgatory hemp seed vodka.
Absinthe Tunel Cannabis (left) and Alaska Distillery Purgatory hemp seed vodka.
Source: (from left) Absinthes.com via Bloomberg; Alaska Distillery via Bloomberg

As a growing number of states take steps to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, bartenders and bud-tenders are coming together, much the way chefs have begun experimenting with high-end, gourmet edibles spiked with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the potent part of the herb). Mixologists are trying out two kinds of potables: cocktails spiked with THC (where legal), and cocktails designed to mimic the actual green, skunky flavors of marijuana.  

Compared to edibles, for which oil- or butter-based extractions are favored, tinctures (herbal essences that are extracted by alcohol) are the preferred vehicle for drinks. Bartenders use Everclear or a different high-proof alcohol to draw THC from the plant, a process similar to that used to make bitters. The most popular seems to involve grinding and then baking the bud at a low temperature (a process called “decarboxylation”) before steeping it in alcohol for a stretch that can range from hours to days. The liquid is then strained and stored, often in a container with an eyedropper or dasher attachment. (I’m coining the term “cannabitters” here and now.)  

Source: Mary Jane Wines/Twitter via Bloomberg

A standard infusion of liquor is an alternative: You merely soak a bunch of weed in a bottle. Those who have experience with making edibles and potables warn that this can create an overly potent drink; tinctures can be used with more precision. If hard alcohol isn’t your thing, there’s always gentler infused wine such as Mary Jane Wines or a soon-to-come offering from singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. There’s also weed-spiked beer. (After all, hops and cannabis are related.)

Where Is It Legal?

Don’t go running to the nearest bar to order a cannabis cocktail just yet. Even in states where recreational marijuana is legal (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington), public consumption is usually prohibited, which precludes weed-y gatherings in bars or restaurants. Cutting-edge experimentation takes place at private events and in the smoky underground.

The gold standard for high-end cannabis cocktails may have been set in 2012, at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. The restaurant’s underground weed dinner included THC-infused riffs on the Gin Sour (gin, lemon, sugar, egg whites, and grapefruit bitters, plus a tincture made with gin, Earl Grey tea leaves, and a “grapefruit-y” strain of indica cannabis) and the California Painkiller (rum, fresh-squeezed orange juice, pineapple, and marijuana-infused coconut oil, topped with grated nutmeg; see recipe below). 

The gold standard for high-end cannabis cocktails may have been set back in 2012, at Roberta's in Brooklyn.
The gold standard for high-end cannabis cocktails may have been set back in 2012, at Roberta's in Brooklyn.
Photographer: Shawn Hoke/Flickr

These aren’t just drinks with weed dumped in; these are thoughtful cocktails composed to emphasize (or, where it made more sense, deemphasize) the flavors and aromas of the specific strains of marijuana used.

“I remember thinking, this opens a new door into cocktails,” recalls Mike Stankovich, who created the drinks for the event and is now bar manager at Brooklyn’s Alameda. “No one ever talks about it, but you go out to drink cocktails to feel something, whether you call it relaxing or loosening up. In terms of recreational benefits, you’re opening the window a little bit more.” Stankovich doesn’t serve the cocktails now, but he liked the Painkiller drink so much that he offers a faux version at Alameda, made with shiso instead of cannibis.

Potential Risks

Of course, not everyone is a fan of the idea of mixing alcohol and marijuana. Adding a weed tincture to a high-octane drink such as an Old Fashioned is “not the most responsible way to consume either alcohol or cannabis,” insists Jane West, owner of Edible Events, a cannabis events production company based in Denver, Colo.

Scott E. Lukas, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry (pharmacology) at Harvard Medical School, agrees, and he has done considerable research about the combined effects of alcohol and marijuana to back his opinion. 

“People are not good at recognizing when the effects of the two drugs are combined,” he notes. “They’ll slow you down, impair your decision-making, and alcohol tends to make you take more risks.” Lukas is particularly concerned about people who might try to drive after sipping a THC-infused libation. His research has shown that THC can impair perceptions of time and distance as long as 24 hours after consumption, even if the “acute” high has long faded.

A further concern: Binge drinkers might not notice the protective reflex to purge due to overindulgence, since THC can help combat nausea and vomiting. (This is one reason it is often prescribed to cancer patients). “People do die from drinking too much alcohol,” Lukas adds.

That said, highballs (such as a gin and tonic, or a Jack and ginger) could be an ideal delivery mechanism for conveying cannabis tinctures, says West: a little bit of alcohol, a lot of mixer, and just enough THC-tinged tincture to catch a buzz. Noted.

Photo illustration: Jeremy Allen/Bloomberg Business; cannabis leaf: David Malan/Getty Images

“I think there will be an entirely different way to consume intoxicating beverages in 10 years,” West muses. In other words, imagine a world in which “intoxicate” has a completely different meaning, incorporating the effects of THC, with or without booze. “I think alcohol companies will get wind of this and create low alcohol [THC-infused] products that taste like a whiskey or bourbon.” 

The Future Market

It may be time to place bets on who will capitalize first and best on the nascent and potentially lucrative marijuana boom. After all, the U.S. market for legal cannabis grew 74 percent in 2014, to $2.7 billion, up from $1.5 billion in 2013, according to ArcView Group, a cannabis industry investment and research firm based in Oakland, Calif. This makes it one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. Already there are rumblings that reality TV star and Skinnygirl booze entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel is getting into the branded marijuana game. Might liquor conglomerates be close behind?

Stankovich thinks so:  “Flash forward 30 years from now. You’re going to have Stoli Weed.” 

Chicago-based Earth Mama, has already debuted a "marijuana-inspired" vodka infused with “herbs and botanicals.”
Chicago-based Earth Mama, has already debuted a "marijuana-inspired" vodka infused with “herbs and botanicals.”
Source: Earth Mama via Bloomberg

It might not yet be on Stolichnaya’s radar, but a smaller company, Chicago-based Earth Mama, has already launched a "marijuana-inspired" vodka infused with “herbs and botanicals.” They sent a bottle my way so I could conduct an experiment: comparing a flight of martinis made with vodka, dry vermouth, and bitters. (Yes, I know a proper martini is made with gin; stay with me.) The goal of this project was to see how the drinks compared in terms of taste and aroma, as well as overall experience.

Here’s how the results stacked up:

Martini #1: vodka, dry vermouth, and orange bitters
Tastes like: Drinking a martini–crisp, clean, and bracing, with a pleasant whiff of orange from the bitters.
Feels like: Drinking a martini. And I’m ready for the next round!

Martini #2: Earth Mama “marijuana-inspired” vodka, dry vermouth, and orange bitters
Tastes like: Drinking a martini, but laced with hints of cedar and dried oregano.
Feels like:  Drinking a martini. Although I wish this one had gin.

Martini #3: vodka and dry vermouth, plus “cannabitters,” aka a tincture made with THC and orange peel
Tastes like: A poorly made martini. The tincture throws the drink off balance, so I mostly taste bitterness from the orange peel. At least, I think it’s from the orange peel. If I was served this martini at a bar, I’d order a shot of bourbon instead.
Feels like: Nap time.
As cocktail trends go, I found this one to be a bit of a snooze, literally. Keep passing that vape, but as far as I'm concerned, ice-cold gin still should be the strongest ingredient in my martini.

Cannabis Cocktail Recipe

California (Mendocino) Painkiller
Courtesy Mike Stankovich

Created for an “underground weed dinner,” cream of coconut was infused with Northern Lights marijuana, then strained and cooked over low heat into a butter-like consistency to make the Coco Lopez cream of coconut for the THC Painkiller mix.

2 ounces Pusser’s Rum
4 ounces THC Painkiller mix*
Nutmeg, to garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice. Shake well, and strain over cracked ice. Grate a liberal amount of fresh nutmeg on top to garnish. Put on pajamas and enjoy.

*THC Painkiller mix
1 part fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 part THC-infused Coco Lopez cream of coconut
4 parts fresh pineapple juice

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