In 2012, Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative called "The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act," effectively legalizing cannabis based largely on the public's growing recognition that blazing is far safer than boozing. Or, as the campaign's most popular slogan put it:
Marijuana—it's like alcohol with no violence, no hangovers and no carbs.
If we're really going to regulate marijuana like alcohol, what better way to forever conjoin the two on equal legal footing than by hoisting a few well-crafted, high-end cannabis cocktails?
Unfortunately, in Colorado and Washington, even though it's now fully legal for adults to buy marijuana at retail stores, things still aren't all that equal. You can't smoke pot at a bar (even one with a smoking section), there's no Amsterdam-style coffeeshops where you can buy herb and then enjoy it among likeminded herbalists, and there's no bring-your-own-marijuana clubs that allow on-site consumption. So even with legalization fever spreading like a nationwide grass fire, it's still highly unlikely that you'll be able to drop in at your local and ask for an Old Fashioned infused with Bubba Kush anytime soon.
"Given how tightly regulated both alcohol and marijuana are currently, I don't see anybody legally mixing them together for a long, long time, either as a packaged good or at a tavern," Daniel K. Nelson, owner and head mixologist at artisanal cocktail hotspot The Writer's Room in Los Angeles, tells the Weed Eater. "Still, I've been to many places where the bartender gives me a little wink and pulls an unmarked bottle of homemade ganja hooch from below the bar."
Nelson says he's enthusiastically enjoyed both smoking herb and eating pot-infused edibles since his days of youthful indiscretion, but only got really interested in cannabis cocktails two years ago, when commissioned to provide the libations at a now legendary gourmet weed dinner. Sure, he'd previously "messed around" with "just throwing a couple of buds in a bottle of vodka," but the results weren't particularly pleasing to the palate. And even after months of steeping, the pot's psychoactive THC barely transferred to the vodka, meaning "you got way-too-drunk before you ever got stoned."
So when chefs Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen and Laurent Quenioux of Bistro LQ reached out for help in pulling off a nine-course secret dinner focused on cannabis as a culinary ingredient, Nelson at last endeavored to do his homework, ultimately finding inspiration in a combination of modern technology and old-school technique.
First he consulted a few 19th Century bartending books in search of recipes that used lavender, rosemary, sage, and other herb-infused tinctures commonly employed by skilled mixologists of the day, so as to better understand how they blended those herbaceous flavors optimally into cocktails. Then he combined that old-school wisdom with a "game-changing, fast and cheap" nitrous-powered techniquefor infusing flavors into alcohol, originally devised by Dave Arnold of The International Culinary Center back in 2010.
While it works well for all manner of herbs, seeds, spices, fruits, and other flavor-bearing ingredients, the technique reportedly makes an amazing Green Dragon—long the slang term for pretty much any combination of booze and buds. In fact, Popular Science recently published a simple recipe for a nitrous-powered Green Dragon that requires nothing more than grinding up an 1/8 ounce of pot and decarboxylating it in the oven at 212 degrees for about an hour, then putting the decarbed bud and 750 ml of booze into a one-liter heat-tolerant whipped cream whipper, giving that combo two charges of N2O per manufacturer's instructions, venting out the gas [sit down if you decide to inhale it], stirring, simmering for an hour, and straining.
"The rapid infusion works," according to Popular Science's Paul Adams, "because high pressure forces N2O and alcohol deep into the plant material. Then, when the gas pressure is suddenly released, it causes the nitrous oxide to come out of solution and violently bubble around the bits of plant material, agitating the mixture on a microscopic level."
Meanwhile, the magazine's anonymous marijuana mixology advisor recommended using mezcal for the alcohol, because its "smokiness complements the herbal flavor of [cannabis]. And mezcal has another advantage—its innate low pH keeps the color of the infusion vivid green, while more alkaline liquors let it become dingier."
At the legendary weed dinner, Daniel Nelson used variations on this nitrous-powered method to create five different cannabis cocktails, each paired with a specific course of THC-infused food. His favorite combined American moonshine and Korean pear, served with a shiso leaf sprayed with weed-infused sesame oil—a mixed drink that offered a strong cannabis flavor on the front end, followed by a citrusy, herbal finish.
"I was really trying to use pot as the salt and pepper of my preparations, and not as the main ingredient," Nelson says. "The point wasn't to get everyone blasted, it was to showcase the different ways you can use cannabis in a culinary setting. People devote a lot of time and effort to growing these beautiful, aromatic flowers, which makes me want to showcase the essence of the plant in all its glory."
So when a close friend and champion marijuana grower recently gifted The Weed Eater a mason jar of his own homemade Green Dragon, with "2011 Sour D" scrawled in Sharpie on the lid, the time had clearly come to move from cannabis cocktail theory into something a little more tangible. At first whiff, the four-year-old jar of weed steeped in vodka smelled strongly astringent, but beneath that powerful olfactory assault lay the distinct lemon-meets-petrol aroma of Sour Diesel buds.
For help figuring out how best to enjoy this most wondrous gift, The Weed Eater turned to Michael Cecconi, Bar Chief at Two Sisters Bar & Books in San Francisco. Formerly at Savoy and Back Forty in New York City, and author of the New Yorker's Lit Spirits column, Cecconi says he typically doesn't work with vodka, because it "brings nothing to the table flavor wise," but he thinks a "2011 Sour Diesel" vodka infusion might work well if substituted for cachaca in a "highly-modified" Ganja Gaucho recipe.
Combining booze, bud, and buzz, this South American-inspired cocktail concept combines the kick of vodka, marijuana's "ineffable chill," and the caffeine boost of Mate tea.
"Consume with caution," Cecconi jokes, "for though scholars throughout the ages have tried to make sense of this holy trinity, no one knows exactly how it will affect you."
And more seriously, the Weed Eater adds that cannabis and alcohol is potentially volatile—even debilitating when mixed together—for those not used to the effects of combing the two. For even the Weed Eater, the potency of the good old Green Dragon remains notoriously difficult to predict. Take it slow, aiming to get tipsy and buzzed instead of drunk and stoned.
To get you started, visit the MUNCHIES recipe section to check out Michael Cecconi's recipe for a Ganja Gaucho. The Weed Eater just whipped one up to celebrate completing this column, and can now confirm that the aggressive, grassy, sharp taste of Sour Diesel-infused vodka blends delightfully with honey-sweetened Mate and lime. Enjoy.