Cannabis Cocktails Will Be Everywhere—But Are They Even Any Good?

Bartenders have been so quick to see whether they could incorporate marijuana into drinks, they didn’t stop to ask whether they should. 
June 21, 2021, 2:03pm
cannabis cocktails

Turning up used to be simple. The bar was for drinking, your home and car were for smoking pot, and the bathroom was for... well, you get it. But with the 2018 Farm Bill creating a huge market for now-legal CBD products (under 0.3 percent THC) and billions of dollars flowing into the rapidly growing cannabis industry as states rush to legalize marijuana, the lines demarcating the ways we get inebriated in public have started to fade. Now, we live in a world where cannabis has infiltrated everything from pajamas and wine to lube. And right on time, cannabis cocktails have started popping up in bars and cafes across the country. 

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CBD cocktails are already ubiquitous, and drinks containing actual THC—mostly sodas and seltzers at this point—have slowly started appearing as well, even though in states where marijuana is legal, like Colorado, THC still can’t be consumed in public spaces like restaurants, bars, and venues. In any case, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, bartenders and producers have been so quick to see whether they could incorporate cannabis into drinks, they didn’t stop to ask whether they should

Adding CBD to a cocktail isn’t as simple as putting a few drops of oil into a Negroni and calling it a day. Beyond the question of drug interactions and the quality of the cannabis being used, there’s the issue of dosage, i.e., how inebriated a person would get with a drink containing X amount of CBD and Y amount of alcohol. Furthermore, there’s the question of flavor, since CBD usually has a very strong earthy, grassy, occasionally bitter taste. There’s also an aesthetic component, since oils, tinctures, and sodas will visually and texturally interact differently with different kinds of spirits, mixers, and garnishes; it would take a bit of R&D to figure out how to avoid issues like cloudiness or separation. The impulse to push food and beverage science in a new direction is a good one that could yield exciting new products and open up new flavor profiles and modes of intoxication. Clearly there’s a demand for it—mixing legal drugs in public spaces has a long history, from Irish coffee (successful) to 4Loko (not so much). But will weed drinks get there?

In making a cannabis cocktail, the first issue bartenders have to deal with is sourcing; not all CBD is created equal (strength and concentration vary greatly, and a lot of CBD on the market isn’t even third-party tested), and it takes a savvy buyer to even be able to find good products to begin with. To buy a drink with cannabis in it means that you’re trusting the bartender to give you a good, thoughtful drink that will make you feel buzzed, but not too faded.

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The lack of knowledge and wide range of variables are making some bartenders think twice before entering this game. “I don’t know how it interacts with alcohol, or what the molecular or pharmacological effects are,” said Chris Voll, wine manager and bartender at popular St. Louis restaurant Little Fox. “Who could even answer that question? Probably only a handful of people.” Voll went on to point out that CBD is part of a larger pattern of introducing trendy components to cocktails before we fully understand the science behind them. “There are a ton of things that sound like cool additions to a cocktail, like tobacco leaf or charcoal, but bartenders don’t realize that there are people who can’t drink those things. We have to be extremely careful.” In his view, cannabis does have merit as a recreational beverage, but it works much better when it’s done in sodas, where the strength and concentration are clear; if experimenting, he would explore CBD via nonalcoholic cocktails.

“Putting an unknown substance into a cocktail is too scary for me to want to fuck with,” said Tim Wiggins, co-owner of celebrated St. Louis cocktail hotspots Lazy Tiger, Retreat Gastropub, and Yellowbelly. “I could be for it as long as it’s clear and researched, but I think the best thing for bartenders to know is that putting shit in cocktails that you don’t understand is never a good idea.” 

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Wiggins recalls the first time he saw a bartender making a CBD drink—a cocktail called Gin and Chronic. “I saw it and was like, ‘Man, this could probably cause some trouble,” he said. “People are already difficult enough to deal with at the bar, and this is just another element of having to keep an eye on people.” Everybody responds differently to cannabis, and even if somebody knows how they usually feel after two Last Words and a half-dropper of their favorite CBD oil, it’s virtually impossible to know how they would metabolize the two together at a bar, especially if the CBD is a new brand and the dosage is not precise.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that a bartender doubles down and chooses to become an expert in CBD products and how they interact with alcohol. (Not to mention that when THC’s legal, it will require an entirely different set of knowledge.) The challenge then becomes figuring out how to successfully incorporate it into a cocktail that actually feels like its own idea and, even more importantly, tastes good. While many THC and CBD seltzers and sodas have pleasant, fruity flavors that bring out the herbal, floral aspects of the cannabis, introducing spirits into the mix presents an entirely different challenge. 

“I can see somebody misting a cocktail with [cannabis], because the aroma can be good, like a sazerac with a cool bouquet, but I’m just not keen on the astringency of the flavor,” Wiggins explained, speculating on how he might go about crafting a drink. “I’d want to take génépy or some kind of herbal liqueur and ramp up the citrus-y and bright, grapefruity flavors you think of when you think of THC.” Recently, Wiggins and his team were experimenting with an Australian amaro that reminded him of the flavor of a vape. “It tasted like a cocktail, but also like I was pulling on a CBD cartridge. It was not pleasant.” 

Voll can envision cannabis working successfully in something like a highball, but he’s reluctant to start experimenting because he’s not sure cannabis fits into the historical narrative of alcohol. “Wine, beer, and cocktails have these really strong cultural identities that have existed through millenia,” he explained. “Looking from a broad philosophical perspective, because CBD is so new—even though marijuana and other drugs in general aren’t new—I think including it in that sort of a setting doesn’t feel right yet.” 

To him, CBD is still too closely associated with its other applications to make sense in a bar. “It’s problematic when you present something that maybe a guest just rubbed on their sore elbow next to a tequila cocktail,” he said, laughing. “It makes me uncomfortable and removes me from the mystic transportation of drinking in cocktail bars or eating in a restaurant.” 

Wiggins isn’t totally closed off to cannabis cocktails; he sees them moving in new directions, especially when THC drinks become legal for public consumption, and points out that he’s noticed a lot of brands working on THC-infused liqueurs so that they’ll have a product ready when the time comes. “If they can find a way that there’s an herbal liqueur that’s one of the components, that’s a valid thing. A whole bar dedicated to it, that could be impressive. That could be a concept,” he said. It may not be that far off.

Voll likens the rise of cannabis cocktails to the craft beer boom: First, there were early adopters, then the commercial breweries caught on, and finally, years later, it balanced out to a community of strong producers and a healthy base of devoted fanatics. (Fun fact: Hops and cannabis are very closely related plants, both containing terpenes and terpenoids, though hops obviously don’t contain THC or CBD.) At the end of the day, as with any food or drink, it just boils down to quality. “There was so much shitty beer—everyone had a shitty IPA,” Voll said. “The good breweries survived, even if they were very small. The beers have gotten better, even if they’ve become more restrained.” In Voll’s opinion, we’re witnessing a similar big bang with CBD. “It will settle into an identity the way craft beer is settling into an identity,” he predicted. “Not everybody is drinking 9 percent IPAs anymore. I’m more interested in drinking your Pilsner now.”