Humboldt County, California, is internationally known for its gorgeous Redwood forests, ornate Victorian architecture, and beautiful camping sites ideal for hiking, fishing, and sightseeing.
….Oh, and also weed. Lots and lots of weed.
With the perfect ecological and social climate for the plant to thrive in, the county might as well be one giant marijuana factory. It has been reported that by 2010, between 15,000 and 30,000 Humboldt citizens grew marijuana or worked for a grower. (The upper limits of that range account for more than 20 percent of Humboldt’s population.) Meanwhile, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified more than 4,000 growing sites in the county.
With people across the internet on sites like “The Stoner’s Cookbook” and Vice experimenting with pot-infused booze, it didn’t take long for folks around these parts to ask Humboldt Distillery, the county’s first micro-distiller, when it would start making weed vodka. “A lot of people have joked about [a marijuana spirit],” says Humboldt’s owner and master distiller, Abe Stevens. “People have hinted that they’d really like something like this. I can’t ignore the consumer demand.” So Stevens created Humboldt’s Finest, the first widely available cannabis-infused vodka to hit the market.
However, there’s a catch: No one will actually get high from this strange, delightful spirit. Sure, Stevens was born in Humboldt. And, yes, he admits to a toke or two in the past. (“Now that I’m almost 40, I’m not really out there having as much fun as I used to,“ he says.) And with dual degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Chicago, he surely has the ability to make alcohol that will get you stoned. But standing between consumers and a true "pot-vodka” is the U.S. government.
“Even if we were in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal; or even if we sold it here as a medicinal product, we’re still federally regulated,” Stevens explains. “As long as marijuana is illegal on a federal level, it’s not likely going to be approved [to be used] in an alcoholic product.”
And the government is serious about making sure there’s no THC in his booze or even anything hinting at weed in his packaging. “We had to send samples of our products into government approved labs to make sure that no one was gonna feel anything funny beyond the normal alcohol content,” Stevens says. “We specifically weren’t allowed to use pot leaves on the label—no drug references,”
So what is he making? Thanks to the federal Farm Bill of 2014—which legalized hemp cultivation in the United States—Stevens can now infuse his vodka with hemp, which has a THC content of less than 0.3% on a dry weight basis. For comparison’s sake, marijuana has an average THC content of 10%, with some rare strains as high as 30%. Stevens further differentiates the two: “When we call our Humboldt’s Finest ‘cannabis infused vodka,’ technically, both hemp and marijuana are cannabis sativa. We use [hemp and cannabis] interchangeably, but it is hemp that we are using, not marijuana.”
Still, his creation retains many of the qualities of the real-deal sticky stuff. “For people who are familiar with what fresh cannabis smells like, it definitely has some of that character,” Stevens admits. “I would describe it as herbal or botanical in aroma. The flavor is a little more modest.”
Actually, from an aroma and flavor profile standpoint, the liquid might have more in common with beer than marijuana. It smells a bit like a cross between a piney, floral west coast brew and your favorite stoner’s unwashed sweatshirt. “There are a lot of similarities between hops and cannabis, so some people who have tried it think it has an IPA beer aroma,” Stevens concurs.
Ultimately, the product might likely appeal more in the long term to adventurous connoisseurs than to frat guys turned on by gimmicky pot-themed novelties. “We have gone to some food and beverage trade shows and poured samples, and a lot of people—even without knowing what it was—really liked [the vodka’s] unique character. I do imagine there will be a lot of people who like its botanical character. It’s an appealing aroma and flavor that seems to work really well in cocktails.”
Stevens has a point here: the beverage is probably best served in mixed drinks as a substitute for gin, considering its herbaceous intensity and resinous, piney flavor. In fact, Stevens did at first consider formulating the product as a gin, but ran into more red tape from Uncle Sam than was worth cutting. “With the federal requirement that juniper has to be the predominant character [in gin], it made it hard for us to get the hemp quality to be noticeable,” he says, sounding less like an entrepreneur, and more like a scientist on the quest for perfection.
“If it was purely business[-motivated], we would have done [a cannabis vodka] from the very beginning. I imagine it would have been a much easier product for us to start with than our traditional vodka or rum. But I’ve been working on it for awhile. I’m sure we could have released it sooner, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I wanted to make sure that our mainline organic vodka and our spiced rum have a chance to get out there on their own merits.” Spoken like a true distiller.
AND NOW, SOME ADVICE FROM AMERICA’S BEST BARTENDERS