We’ve come a long way since the days of Reefer Madness. With the gradual easing of marijuana prohibition laws throughout the United States over the last decade or two, we’ve witnessed a steadily-increasing (albeit divisive) acceptance of the world’s second-favorite recreational drug in mainstream culture. Though we’re probably still another several years away from full legalization, that hasn’t stopped enterprising bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts from beginning to experiment with cannabis tinctures in their artisanal drinks.
Cannabis Tinctures Have a History
Strange as that may seem, it’s actually a pretty natural step in the evolution of craft booze—or, perhaps more accurately, a step back into the old days when bitters, shrubs, and aromatic spirits took up a good chunk of the local apothecary shop.
Long before the drug was first outlawed in the US, cannabis tinctures were relatively common treatments for a whole host of ailments, from nausea to muscle spasms and chronic pain. Much like aromatic bitters, which started their lives as health tonics, it was probably only a matter of time before cannabis-infused ingredients made their way into the cocktail world as well.
Of course, no conversation about cannabis cocktails can begin without a requisite nod to the elephant in the room: in most parts of the country, consuming these drinks recreationally is still illegal. Outside of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, the prospect of ordering a cocktail infused with cannabis bitters at your local bar is still a distant one (and even in states with full legalization, there are generally still laws prohibiting public consumption of the stuff).
That said, if the pendulum continues its current swing away from prohibition—all those new tax dollars do have a certain appeal—it’s likely that this conversation will only become more relevant in the coming years.
How Do Cannabis Cocktails Work?
Legal issues aside, cannabis tinctures are actually pretty interesting from a scientific perspective. While there are numerous compounds in cannabis that have therapeutic properties, the most widely-known and famously psychoactive ones are the cannabinoids, chief among them being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Most of the THC in cannabis, though, spends its time tied up as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA. When the plant is heated (commonly by smoking), THCA undergoes a reaction known as decarboxylation, in which it ditches its carboxyl group—the part of its structure that makes it an acid—in the form of carbon dioxide. After heating, you’re left with regular ol’ THC.
When making a cannabis tincture or infusion, though, there’s no innate heating process to cause that decarboxylation (or “decarbing,” as it’s known in some circles), so it needs to be introduced beforehand. Generally, this is done by baking the cannabis in a low-temperature oven. Warren “Cocktail Whisperer” Bobrow suggests giving it a few quick runs through the microwave in a turkey bag instead, as it doesn’t stink up your kitchen quite so powerfully.
After that, the cannabis is macerated in a high-proof spirit, much like the first step in making homemade bitters. From there, it can either be used as a straightforward, infused base spirit, turned into bitters, added to syrups, or used to make any number of other ingredients.
Cannabis Cocktail Recipes
If you’re looking for some recipes to try out yourself (which, once again, we can only recommend to people who are of age and live in states where it’s legal), keep an eye out for Warren Bobrow’s new book Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, and Tonics, which comes out on June 1st.
In general, though, aficionados tend to recommend staying away from spirit-forward drinks, like a cannabis-infused Old-Fashioned or Martini—the flavor of these infused spirits is fairly pungent, and it will easily overpower the other ingredients in your cocktail.
Highballs work well, like a Moscow Mule (Bobrow makes a Kentucky Mule with cannabis-infused bourbon), as do vegetal or citrusy recipes of any kind (the Pimm’s Cup and Ramos Gin Fizz have both received high marks). They dilute the infusion a bit and bind the flavors together better than subtler cocktails.
But what makes this such an interesting subject is the fact that there are so few documented recipes out there at the moment. It’s an entirely new area of experimentation, and there isn’t yet much of an accepted canon—mixologists have only recently started to entertain the idea of cannabis as an ingredient.
We’ll refrain from suggesting that you run out there and start experimenting yourself, as it’s a pretty limited number of our readers who can actually do that, but we definitely think you’ll want to keep an eye on this trend. Even if you don’t partake, it’s not often that we get to witness a brand-new category of craft cocktail being developed.