The national movement for legal cannabis has gained significant momentum. Marijuana becoming a legally available ingredient for bars and restaurants may now be a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Eight states now allow cannabis for recreational use: Maine, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. 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.
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, 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, a lesser-known molecular compound found in cannabis with medicinal properties.
CBD, derived from the stalk of the cannabis plant, 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 lacks psychoactive effects. This difference between THC and CBD—psychoactive vs. not—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 contains gin, carpano, turin aperitivo, port wine and orange oil. The Sour T-iesel (shown above) is made with tequila blanco, lime, agave, mint, matcha and aquafaba (water in which legume seeds such as chickpeas have been cooked). The CBD-tinged cocktails at Gracias Madre and Gratitude sell for $20.
The concept of cannabis cocktails is still so new that some people 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 Eisner uses is “super floral” in aroma, he says, “like opening a fresh bag of Kush,” the OG Kush 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, OG Kush and Sour Diesel. “Imagine each strain as its own terroir,” Bobrow explains. “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, for instance. OG Kush goes ideally with 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 a physical pain reliever, libido enhancer and a source of energy, like coffee.
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 (rather than the legal CBD) in bars or restaurants is illegal.
For those that privately experiment with marijuana-mixed drinks, carefulness is advised. There is risk of overdosing, and the combination of alcohol and pot can exacerbate the negative effects of both.
THC can have negative side effects, such as the risk of overdose. 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. If you’re newer to cannabis, then go light.”
He urges no more than one cannabis cocktail per hour for people starting off. Cannabis pros can up the dosage for stronger drinks.
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 in some edibles.”
A big reason why 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, 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 shooters and 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.
The Future Of Cannabis
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.
Indeed, “People have been using marijuana [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,” he adds. “Millennials are going to fully legalize cannabis within the next decade.”
His 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.”