Led by longtime drinks professionals, brands like MXXN and Klaus think THC can thrive in cocktail culture, sans the alcohol
BY KIRK MILLER / APRIL 20, 2022 6:25 AM
The worlds of THC and alcohol haven’t really crossed over, and to be honest, that’s probably for the best. Not all potentially buzzy experiences need to or should be intertwined.
But if you take away booze from that crossover while keeping the idea of mixology in place, suddenly the small but growing industry of bartender-friendly, cannabinoid-infused “spirits” and mixers makes more sense.
We’ve covered this meeting-of-minds before, although not specifically related to THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. First there’s Flyers, a line of alcohol-free sparkling cannabis cocktails with full-spectrum CBD distillates that are crafted, in part, by award-winning mixologist Ivy Mix. Then there’s The Pathfinder Hemp & Root, a non-alcoholic “spirit” fermented and distilled from hemp; two of the three founders have extensive liquor brand experience, and the mixer works nicely in both boozy and non-boozy drinks.
When I spoke with the founders of those drinks brands, they all suggested that THC-infused variations were on the way.
One that’s already here? MXXN (pronounced “moon”). The BIPOC-founded brand claims to be the spirit industry’s first 1:1 non-alcoholic and THC-infused replacement for gin, tequila and bourbon. The company is led by Darnell Smith, a booze industry vet with over 15 years of experience at Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi.
“I was working in the spirits industry in product innovation and found myself drinking more than I cared to due to the nature of the profession,” Smith tells InsideHook. “I was looking for a way to cut back on alcohol but still take part in the social aspects associated with drinking and cocktail culture. And I had been a consumer of cannabis for chronic pain after 15 years as a football player and would make my own tinctures at home, so I started bringing the tinctures out to social events, ordering a tonic and lime and putting a few drops in. My wife encouraged me to find a way to bring the tincture and tonic idea to the public in some capacity.”
MXXN’s website offers variations on well-known cocktails, although the proportions are interesting, given the idea that you’re getting about 6 mg of THC per 1.5 oz pour — an Old Fashioned riff, for example, suggests a very small .75 oz measurement of MXXN’s Kentucky Oak, as opposed to a standard 2 oz pour if you were using a regular bourbon.
We were recently able to try MXXN Jalisco Agave (the drink is available in California and direct-to-consumer in a few markets). It’s a cloudy, straw-colored liquid with grassy and floral notes. On the palate, it’s soft but also spicy and with a pronounced salinity — it’s not offensive on its own, but it feels much better suited for a cocktail. I turned my initial small pour into a very nice Paloma alternative, which lacked the usual alcohol “kick” but maintained the essence of agave and heightened the grapefruit notes (while also a touch of spice).
I’m not alone in my thoughts on how the product mixes. “When we started MXXN, we were trying to emulate the tastes of spirits in standalone form,” explains Smith, who also notes that bartenders were consistently giving feedback during the product’s formulation. “But we found it to be extremely difficult to find a substitute for the specific flavor and profile ethanol provides in that form, so we pivoted a bit to create a product that emulates the base flavor profiles of these spirits when mixed in a cocktail with other ingredients.”https://www.instagram.com/p/Ca-Ypv9Ma0X/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=12
The recipe wasn’t an easy process. In the brand’s early stages, the technology wasn’t there to get the THC evenly distributed throughout the base formula (“Which for dosing reasons was an obvious problem,” Smith notes). They eventually utilized nanoemulsion technology from Vertosa to solve that problem, but the company also had to finalize the flavor profile and make the product shelf-stable, which proved more difficult to do without alcohol while still utilizing natural ingredients.
In the end, Smith thinks products like MXXN will appeal to the health-conscious (and non-boozy drinkers), but also believes they offer real potential to unite the worlds of drinks and cannabis.
“We’re not here to completely replace your booze or how you consume it,” he says. “We’re here to provide a new experience and evolve cocktail culture.”
Klaus takes a different approach. And that involves a gnome.
Just launched, Klaus is a ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail in a can, albeit with a “10 mg terpene-forward cannabis emulsion per drink” as opposed to a boozy ABV. These were crafted by popular mixologist Warren Bobrow, who credits…well, I’ll have him explain.
“The inspiration for my product, funnily enough, was my drinking gnome named Klaus,” says Bobrow. “Klaus traveled the world with me in my prior career in liquor sales. He also came with me to competitions where I served as a rum judge for both the Ministry of Rum and the Florida-based Rum XP.” (That association explains the launch of Klaus with Mezzrole, a take on the classic Ti’ Punch.)
As Bobrow remembers, he was signing copies of his drinks guide Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails at the Pharmacy Museum when noticed an exhibit named “Cannabis in the Early Apothecary,” which led to an idea for his next book, Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails and Tonics. And the success of that book led to the idea of creating a canned, THC-infused cocktail.
(Yes, but the actual gnome influence? “To me, Klaus is much more than just a German drinking gnome. He represents goodness, kindness and the amalgamation of my life experiences. Sure, he loves to drink, but he’s recently switched over to my refreshing infused mocktails.”)
For Bobrow, it was not an issue emphasizing the cannabis aspects of his drink. “The ‘craft’ in craft cocktails isn’t always about the liquor. It’s the balance of the ingredients,” he says. “My Mezzrole cocktail — named for Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet’s friend and cannabis dealer, Mezz Mezzrow — has no alcohol, but it’s terpene-forward. It smells like a perfectly cured cannabis bud and provides consumers with a lovely, relaxing, talkative yet grounded feeling.” (It’s apparently also great for sleep. We’ll have samples soon to review.) https://www.instagram.com/p/CZ2ObaFDuqb/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=12
Unlike some of his peers, Bobrow feels THC is a versatile and somewhat enviable ingredient to work into mixed drinks.
“It can be flavored with terpenes as an adjunct to the other fine ingredients in a craft cocktail, or it can be flavorless and woven into a seltzer,” he says. “To me, the process is not challenging because cannabis possesses terroir. The plant embodies the taste of the place it was grown, like wine, except there are perhaps even more terpenes in cannabis than wine.”
As for serving suggestions, Klaus’s drinks — which will soon include a riff on the Tiki classic Zombie — only have 16 calories and 0.6 grams of sugar per can; each of those 8 oz cans features 10 mg THC, which Bobrow estimates is perfect for two drinks and a nice mental middle ground. “We’re somewhere between a microdose and the opposite end where the effects are a little too strong.”
Even if their approaches (and taste profiles) differ, Bobrow and Smith share a similar audience expectation: health-conscious, social, open to a “buzz” but wanting to feel better in the next morning.
“Many folks in my former world of liquor struggle with alcohol, and several have already reached out to tell me how much this beverage means to them,” says Bobrow. “Alcohol and cannabis provide different experiences. I feel out of control when drinking liquor, and I think a lot of people can relate. But I’m not here to preach. I’m here to make the world’s best craft cannabis libations and raise the bar.”