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Bartenders weigh in on the benefits of 2018’s buzziest cocktail ingredient trend

Dan Q. Dao
October 01, 2018

Cocktails are already a great way to relax and unwind, but a new trend you've probably seen everywhere is taking things things one, very chill step further. Replacing activated charcoal as this year’s ubiquitous food fad is cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive chemical found in hemp and cannabis that's been creeping its way onto cocktail menus (and into coffee shops) all over the country.

While CBD contains no THC, and therefore will not get you high, it will still deliver some of the non-trippy effects of weed—a little sedation and relaxation. And bartenders are taking note, experimenting with the stuff in everything from infusions and tinctures to teas. But what exactly do you feel when you mix your CBD with booze?

“It gives you a different kind of ‘buzz’ for a relaxed state of mind,” says Zsolt “George” Csonka, owner-bartender at Adriaen Block, New York City’s first dedicated CBD bar. “After two drinks, you should find yourself feeling calm and mellow.”

Adriaen Block’s cocktails, with witty names like the Rolled Fashioned and Stoney Negroni, get their CBD content from various tinctures added via eyedropper to manage the dosage. Csonka chooses to make his drinks exclusively with low-ABV spirits, such as vermouths and sherries, which he believes works best for calming effects and overall wellness.

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“CBD started popping up as a wellness trend to alleviate anxiety, pain, and inflammation,” he says. “When putting CBD in a low ABV or non-alcoholic cocktail, you can enjoy a drink or two and still be able to go to the gym the next day.”

Ryan Fleming, brand ambassador at Los Angeles whiskey producer Stillhouse Spirits Co., echoes the pros of CBD based on his personal experience. “As a bartender, it’s done wonders for my aches and pains, while also giving me the ability to still have a couple of drinks after work and not worry about complications with pain relievers.”

Beyond its purported health benefits, the application of CBD in cocktails can lead to a number of different flavor and texture enhancements.

Its natural taste is mostly neutral, with green, chlorophyll-like notes that can add a pleasant complexity to certain drinks.

“If you are using a pure CBD oil, it will taste earthy and plant-like, but this can be a great addition to many cocktails—a lot of gin and amaro-based cocktails work very well with this mixture,” says Fleming. “It also can add a viscous mouthfeel that I find delightful in a nice stirred cocktail.”

Rachel Burkons, founder of the culinary cannabis company Altered Plates, agrees, explaining that the terpene content found in gin makes it a natural partner to CBD. “We’ve found that gin-based drinks and other cocktails with a botanical twist work well, mostly because they’re also terpene-rich,” she says. “Many of those flavors are also the building blocks of flavor in cannabis and hemp.”

Meanwhile, owner-bartender Johnny Swet of New York’s Jimmy at the James says sometimes he likes to go even further, adding the hemp flavor directly to the spirit by fat-washing it—a form of infusion—in addition to adding a CBD component. But he opts for a different method depending on the drink’s other ingredients, experimenting with tinctures, teas, and even edibles: his Jeff Spicoli Special fuses mezcal and Amaro Montenegro with pumpkin butter and a CBD gummy bear. For cocktails where the taste of CBD oil might overpower the other flavors, Swet recommends picking a spirit with a heavy dominant flavor of its own.  

“To account for the taste of CBD in cocktails, I lean towards spirits with stronger flavors like mezcal, tequila, or bourbon,” Swet says. “Those three in particular seem to work best with CBD, but I also love pairing CBD with very flavorful, seasonal ingredients like pumpkin, apples, pears, and herbs including sage, mint, and rosemary.”

Despite the fun and versatility of CBD ingredients, Burkons cautions that adding CBD to drinks is still in a legal gray area. In July, the California Department of Health issued a notice to food-and-beverage operators, stating that it’s illegal to add CBD to food and drink, even threatening fines to Orange County cafe marketing the stuff as a dietary supplement. (To note, a hemp taqueria and CBD smoothie bar are still operating in LA).

“Not to be a total downer, but the one thing I’ve had to educate most of my friends and clients on is the fact that, at the end of the day, this just isn’t legal,” Burkons says. “While there are currently steps happening to make hemp and hemp-derived CBD federally legal, at this moment, these products and their on-premise application are not compliant.”

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But until other Departments of Health put the kibosh on CBD cocktails, experimentation will likely forge on. Burkons advises that any bartender looking to work with CBD should put as much care into sourcing it as they would their spirits list.

“Because this is a federally illegal product, there is no government oversight, so hemp-derived CBD can be low-quality, filled with pesticides and grown in China, or could be organic, sun-grown from Colorado,” she says. “Do some research to find a premium product that will give your guest the best experience possible.”  

While the amounts of CBD typically being used—usually between 3 and 5 miligrams—are not enough to provide the reported medicinal benefits, the relaxing effects of a few drops are undeniable. And with the creativity of today’s bartenders, it’s no surprise these feel-good and taste-good CBD cocktails are becoming fast favorites.

“The guest response to CBD cocktails has been very positive—they’re excited to experiment and see what all the fuss is about,” Swet says. “It’s also a great way to break the ice and start up a great conversation with the person next to you at the bar.”

You heard it here, folks. Next time you’re having trouble chatting up someone at the bar, try a CBD cocktail.