The Stoney Negroni, Sour T-iesel and Rolled Fashioned, from left, at Gracias Madre
The day of the cannabis cocktail is upon us. Currently, with some version of legal marijuana, either medicinal or recreational or both, in more than half of American states, the leafy green is increasingly easy to come by. With availability comes experimentation, not to mention an entirely new group of people curious to experience a legal high. And with experimentation, particularly in the case of the bartending community and the cocktails it makes, comes the inevitable issues of safety and responsibility.
Cannabis is composed of hundreds of cannabinoids, organic compounds that have various pharmacologic effects on the brain and body. The two most important for our purposes are CBD, which is non-psychoactive, and THC, the chemical that produces the high. According to the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC), alcohol consumption raises THC concentrations to a significant degree, but this relates specifically to smoking pot and drinking separately at the same time.
When you add THC, usually in some sort of concentrated form, directly to a drink, you create one cohesive delivery system, one that changes cannabis’ overall effects. It’s also worth noting that in order for the psychoactive form of THC to be present in an infusion or tincture it needs to be decarboxylated, a process that involves heating the cannabis to alter its chemical form.
Jason Eisner and Gracias Madre (image: Eric Wolfinger)
Darcy O’Neill, a chemist and bartender who first pointed out the dangers of infusing alcohol with tobacco, offers up some practical advice when it comes to making cocktails. “Any time someone puts something with an active ingredient, like THC, into a drink, I do have a concern,” he says. “My advice to bartenders working with any cannabis components is to make sure the customer knows what they are getting. Just because we think a cannabis cocktail may be fun, there may be serious life consequences that we haven’t thought about.”
When you smoke weed, it travels directly from the lungs to the brain. When you ingest it, be it a brownie or a cocktail, the drug has to travel through the GI tract and the liver, which metabolizes the THC into a more concentrated form. Because of the delivery system, the effects of ingested THC take longer to feel and can last into the next day. And these basic facts don’t take into account the further complexities of potency or individual reactions.
Sour T-eisel at Gracias Madre (image: Jakob N. Layman)
All of these variables concern Matthew Rowley, a James Beard–nominated historian, author and retired museum curator whose specialty is illicit drinks. Rowley has consulted on a number of cannabis drink recipes and consistently sees inappropriate measurements, as well as a lack of basic knowledge, particularly for safe preparation.
“I love that bartenders and home mixologists are making cannabis cocktails,” says Rowley. “However, it’s the height of irresponsibility for [bartenders, writers, et al.] to fail to account for the strength of their concoctions.… There are some overlaps, but smoking and drinking cannabis provide two very different experiences with different onset times, durations and sensations.”
Jason Eisner, the co-owner of Block Party and beverage director at Gracias Madre, both in Los Angeles, has been mixing with CBD and THC personally for many years and recently started serving non-psychoactive CBD-laced cocktails at Gracias Madre. Eisner echoes Rowley’s opinion, saying, “The effects of THC tend to be far more powerful when consumed as a food or beverage. When ingesting marijuana in bulk, some people have even likened their experience to psychedelic drugs.” Even an experienced marijuana smoker will have a vastly different experience with edibles or, in this case, drinkables. In the case of cocktails, where people often drink more than one a night, the outcome is highly unpredictable.
Gracias Madre (image: Eric Wolfinger)
“First and foremost, the drinks, whether we’re talking about gin cocktails or chocolate milkshakes, must contain safe levels of cannabinoids, specifically THC, the plant’s well-known psychoactive component,” says Rowley. “For moderate users, 10 to 15 milligrams are generally considered a relatively safe dose. Safe dosing must be at the core of any cannabis drink recipe. And the key to safe dosing is to know your strain, especially when THC concentrations can vary wildly from strain to strain.” Of course, “safe” is a relative term. Depending on gender, body type, metabolism, experience and numerous other factors, what is “safe” for one person may not be for another.
It’s also important to note that a tincture or concentrate will be quite potent. Leafly, the world’s largest cannabis information source, recently noted in a cannabis cocktail article that, while raw marijuana has about a 20 percent concentration of THC, concentrates can have up to 90 percent. Mix that concentrate with booze, both of which have specific effects on body and mind, and you create an even more potentially mind-altering elixir.
“This is a conversation mostly about frequency (how often you use and how much you use), ignorance (how much you do or don’t know as it relates to marijuana’s effects on you) and personal responsibility (your own judgment or lack thereof),” says Eisner. “And that means both those making the drinks or offering up recipes for mixing, as well as those consuming the beverages, must be informed and vigilant.”
I've been experimenting with this for a few years and have come up with a fairly reliable way of getting a little extra buzz in a drink that is predictable for personal consumption when legally permitted.
I refuse to use THC or CBD extracts. It's just stupid. I'm not a druggist, and honestly... if I'm just looking for a chemical reaction, there are far easier ways to ingest one.
First thing first: respect your ingredients. THC is a stimulant, ethanol is a depressant. You put them together, the results can sometimes put you on spin. So know where you're getting your THC from. High levels contribute to paranoia, mania, etc. Is that something you want yourself and your loved ones to experience? CBD gives you the more mellow, social, body high that. It's still somewhat stimulating to the central nervous system, but it isn't going to make you go insane in the membrane.
High levels of CBD go waaaaaay better with the effects of alcohol, and, as rumor has it, contribute to some of the best conversations this side of pinpoint pupils and silk dragon tapestry.
Now... again: know your ingredients. THC and CBD are largely fat soluble. That's why it sticks around in your system for a while. That's why you supposedly bake it into butter when you're making confections. The only way to get it into an extract is chemically, and that isn't a regulated part of the new legal market. No bueno.
Go to your local headshop or dispensary and find the strain that's for you and your desired effects. I like Cheese if I'm looking to go down a Hunter Thompson rabbit hole of writing, Blue Dream if I want to get creative, and my favorite for social gatherings over food (with a great body high) is Love Spell (also my favorite scent of Victoria's Secret lotion). Know your weed, dude.
Back on point, considering you need fat to activate the psychotropic effects of weed without solvents and nasty bits, fat washing is key. What do you want to do? I love sesame oil with New Amsterdam Gin. Irish butter with Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum. Lard with Espolon Repasado. Rendered bacon fat with Benchmark 8. These are washes, so you can save the high priced stuff to be savored appropriately: if you can't make something that tastes good with high quality swill, pack up your skinny jeans and go back to bar-backing.
Soap box away.
So... you have your favored fat, the favored spirit you like to wash that fat in, and a fat soluble organic compound. Turn your attention to modernist cuisine for a moment. Sous vide is what I'm talking about. Like good BBQ, low and slow is what you need to make a good infused fats. Take your preferred product and I've heard rumors that the preferred ratio is 1lb fat to 1 ounce weed. "They" talk a lot.
No, set you Anova circulator to 200 degrees and let the water bath stabilize while you heat up the butter and add your infusing herbs (pulverized). Mix thoroughly like any compound butter, pour into a ziplock bag or vacuum pouch (preferred) and remove as much air as possible.
This method has some key benefits. One: nothing to pay attention to for hours on end (and you're going to have to be a stoner to try this). Two: the end butter will not be a clarified product like the traditional add water/simmer/add water for a few hours method. Your butter will still behave like butter, though the water content of your herbs will impact texture somewhat. Three: No possibility for scorching the butter fats. The difference between brown butter and scorched petrol is about 45 seconds. Four: I can't remember.
Drop your butter and submerge completely. Let it hang out for 2-6 hours depending on how much potency you want in the end product. I let it go for a while because the washing process doesn't get all the THC into the spirit. I view this as an extra step for humanitarian enhancement, not a way to get high and drunk simultaneously. That's a recipe for date rape, and I refuse to serve that... which is why I would NEVER be stupid enough to put this on a bar menu. People react to drugs differently and when you serve combination drinks to customers you're Roy Horn and the status of your incarceration and liquor license is the Tiger when it comes to liability for anything that happens subsequently.
Let me repeat: you would have to be a complete IDIOT to put a cannabis/alcohol cocktail on your menu.
So, now you have your infused fat. Strain it, then fat was with your chosen medium, method, and ingredients as you would normally. You'll have a very potent cannabis fat to cook with or add to waffles or salad dressings or caramel sauce or ganache (yummy yamahama) that is also flavored with your spirit of choice.
Or... weed rum butter on cinnamon bourbon (fireball is a hack's beverage) French toasted waffles prepared a la egg in the holey-woley. I'm a SLUT for brunch, like any bartender worth their salt.
Go nuts, get weird, and make the world a better place with chemistry.
The real trick is evening out the herbal skunky notes. Hopped grapefruit bitters are a great choice as a bridge seasoning, especially if doing a funky grayhound. I also like seasoning raw eggwhites in the shell with lemongrass or hay and using in a sour. It also has the added benefit of making an incredibly smooth cocktail, as it is both protein and fat washed. It also kills the eggy eggy eggy note of traditional sours.
Or, stick to traditional dry and aromatic cocktails like negronis and aperol spritzes. Or, get creative with a gin flip. I put one on a dinner party menu and called it "chicken or egg or waffle flip" because you didn't know what came first: the munchies or the high.
It comes down to knowing your ingredients and respecting them, knowing your desired outcome, knowing how to prepare those ingredients, knowing how to balance the chemistry lab you're opening up, and knowing enough about not BEING A COMPLETE AND TOTAL MORON by serving your concoction to the general public under the responsibility of a liquor license and bartender with due diligence towards the welfare of your loyal patrons.
As a medical user and an experimenter, I feel it necessary to point out that weed does not need to be decarbed before using it in alcohol. Mixing raw dried bud with a high content alcohol (75%+) and allowing several days for infusion, one can make a very potent tincture. Not decarbing it makes for a better taste and a more appealing visual presentation.