Voters in nine states got to make their opinions known on marijuana last November, and they spoke loudly in favor of it. Eight of the nine ballot initiatives to legalize or deregulate pot passed, officially making cannabis legal for medical use in 28 states and legal for recreational use in nine states, including in our own capitol.
This was far from the first time issues on weed have appeared on ballots, but voters managed to pass a symbolic milestone in 2017. California passed Proposition 64, legalizing the ability for individuals over 21 to use (and grow) marijuana for personal use. Recreational marijuana is now allowed for about 20 percent of the U.S. population, and about three-fifths—nearly 200 million people—have access to legal medical marijuana.
Despite still being banned on a federal level, marijuana is on an inevitable march toward wider societal acceptance and availability via edibles and other weed-based products. And who better to talk to about its growing acceptance than with bartenders, the people who specialize in coming up with clever ways to utilize a different illicit, psychoactive substance? We first covered the question of “where are all of the weed cocktails?” in April of last year, and now that recreational use of pot is inevitable, we’re back to wondering where the two substances together are heading.
So what is exactly happening, if anything at all?
The first crucial thing to note about combining marijuana and alcohol is that not unsurprisingly, it’s very illegal to do so commercially. This includes even in states where both substances are legal separately. In Oregon, weed has been fully legalized for a year and a half, but you still absolutely may not consume it in a public place, especially if that place holds a liquor license. “It’s a huge no-no,” says Chris Churilla, lead bartender at popular Portland cocktail joint Bit House Saloon. “We as a bar take a very aggressive stance toward smoking pot anywhere on the premises. I have physically removed people from the premises and threatened to call the police. If I lose my license or furthermore am imprisoned…that is a risk I will never take, nor will I allow someone else to compromise.”
Even those who advocate mixing weed and drinks acknowledge the need to be careful. Warren Bobrow, the longtime drinks writer behind Cannabis Cocktails, perhaps the world’s first book on the topic, advocates what he calls the Thai food principle: “The first time you take someone out for Thai food, you don’t order the five-star spicy dish. You start small and work your way up” he says. “Any idiot can get everyone wasted, but I don’t recommend that.”
That’s the same advice Ry Prichard provides as well. A Denver-based writer, photographer and “cannabusiness” consultant, Prichard has been working in the legal-marijuana industry since 2010 and serves as co-host and resident weed expert for Bong Appetit, a new show on cannabis food and drinks that premiered last month on Viceland. He’s seen folks overdo it, especially if they’ve already been drinking before they consume any marijuana.
The truth is that, like combining any two drugs, mixing alcohol and marijuana can have a synergistic effect and hit drinkers harder than either substance would by itself. But because this is such a new field (and because federal law limits much research on cannabis), there’s not the same level of understanding of how weed affects the body like you have with alcohol. “There’s not an easy answer. It’s just a body chemistry thing,” Prichard says. “There’s not a good test of how impaired someone is by cannabis, and it’s gonna be a big mess trying to figure this out.”
Beyond the legal issues and the Wild West feel of the whole field, a cannabis cocktail culture is starting to come together. And one of the pioneers is Jason Eisner, beverage director for a restaurant group that operates several vegan restaurants in California, including Gracias Madre in Los Angeles. Gracias Madre’s menu includes a trio of cocktails that incorporate cannabidol (CBD), the chemical component of marijuana responsible for many of its anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects, which might make him the first American bartender to ever sell a cannabis cocktail in a licensed bar. “I found a loophole,” Eisner says. He’s currently using a CBD extract called CW Hemp that’s made from hemp—basically the stems but not the flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant—and is perfectly legal in all 5o states. No, really: There are many brands available on Amazon.
Eisner’s been a bartender since the late ‘90s, working everywhere from New York to Malibu, and he launched his CBD cocktails about seven months ago. He tried pot as a teenager, but didn’t really like it until a few years ago when he tried some medical-grade stuff a friend had smuggled in from California. Since then, he’s become an evangelist for pot’s beneficial effects. “With CBD, I still have my wits about me. I can go about my day,” he says. “I started putting it in cocktails because I wanted other people like me to get it too. The people hanging blacklight Cypress Hill posters in their bedrooms don’t need me to introduce them to cannabis.”
“The truth is that, like combining any two drugs, mixing alcohol and marijuana can have a synergistic effect and hit drinkers harder than either substance would by itself.”
But it’s not just non-psychoactive CBD that’s the subject of drinks experiments. Plenty of folks are also incorporating THC, the chemical in weed that actually gets you high. “Cannabis and alcohol went into everything back in the apothecary days,” Bobrow says. In a previous book, Apothecary Cocktails, he featured recipes for old-timey medicinal tinctures, bitters and cocktails calling for a variety of botanical ingredients, but his publisher wouldn’t let him include marijuana—that was part of the impetus for Cannabis Cocktails. Bobrow likes to take advantage of the savory and citrusy notes pot can bring to drinks, especially those on the more savory side of the spectrum.
Different strains of weed can contribute different flavors: Bobrow says indicas have a “dank, dark” flavor that goes will with brown spirits, while sativas tend to be “light, aromatic and crisp” and go well with lighter-bodied spirits like gin, tequila or mezcal. (Eisner agrees, saying his favorite spirit with CBD oil are agave spirits, which he says also improve mood: “You can’t be sad drinking a Margarita.”)
“In my personal experience, I really like the mix of marijuana and alcohol—not just the physical effects but also the flavor,” Prichard says. “Cannabis by its nature plays toward aromas that pair well with food and drinks.” He’s a fan of using terpenes to incorporate marijuana flavors in drinks without psychoactive effects. Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in a wide range of fruits, flowers and plants, including in high quantities in marijuana. Several companies sell bottled terpenes extracted from different strains of cannabis—basically essential oils—and Prichard frequently uses them on Bong Appetit. (One of his favorites comes from a strain called Lemon Haze, which has a sweet and tangy note he says works well in tiki drinks.) In theory, the terpenes do not have any physical or psychoactive effect on the human body, but on the other hand, Prichard says, “the whole field of aromatherapy is predicated on the idea that these kinds of chemicals can heal.”
Terpenes helped convert Devon Tarby to the marijuana-cocktail cause as well. A bartender in Southern California for nearly a decade, she’s now a partner in and in charge of menu development for Proprietors LLC, which runs several of the country’s top bars, including Death & Co. in New York and The Walker Inn in L.A. She’s also a self-described “mostly daily” cannabis user, but she’d never combined marijuana and alcohol until she got a call from Bong Appetit’s producers to help create cocktails for an episode. “The coolest thing was being introduced to terpenes,” she says. “As soon as I figure out where to get them, I want to have them on hand at my bars.” On the show, she created an aperitif cocktail using the bitter gentian liqueur Suze, floral St-Germain and sparkling wine with an oil extracted from a pot strain that smells of fresh pine and lemon.
So where is this all headed? As a society, we’ve had centuries to build up all the rituals and norms associated with drinking in bars, but there’s really no equivalent for marijuana. “In just a few years, we’ve gone from Cheech & Chong to cancer patients or a stressed-out mom with a vape pen,” Prichard says. “But it’s still gonna be a while, if ever, until you can have a beer and smoke a joint at the same bar.”
He cites Initiative 300, passed by voters in the city of Denver in November, which establishes licenses that allow public consumption of cannabis in places like coffee shops, yoga studios and cafes—but, thanks to adjustments to the law quickly adopted by the city, absolutely not anywhere with a liquor license. “We may see the first legal cannabis clubs in America in the next six months,” he says. In the future, Prichard envisions “places separate from the bar scene but with a similar feel to a bar.”
“As a society, we’ve had centuries to build up all the rituals and norms associated with drinking in bars, but there’s really no equivalent for marijuana.”
If that sounds similar to the “coffee shops” that sell marijuana in Amsterdam, you’re not wrong. That’s the model Tarby thinks will develop in America as well, but she worries the fledgling industry is on unsteady ground. “Everyone is still just scratching the surface,” she says. “The last thing anybody wants is to have people who don’t know how to properly serve cannabis and ruin it for everybody.”
Eisner, for his part, is totally on board with the marijuana revolution. He’s working on a non-alcoholic canned “cocktail” made with CBD called Dope Cannabis Cocktails that he hopes to have on sale by the end of the year, as well as a cannabis cafe concept modeled on Amsterdam coffee houses in California. “This is just the beginning. We’ll even see full-on cannabis restaurants,” he says. “The next generation has made their voices heard on this issue. The federal government won’t be able to continue suppressing cannabis for very long.”
For now, most experiments in combining pot and cocktails remain hidden underground, but we’re witnessing the birth of something brand-new that’s going to change the way we get our mind-altering chemicals. “It’s already a multi-billion-dollar business,” Prichard says. “And it’s definitely not going away.”