Call me Alyson. For some months now—never mind how long precisely—I had heard rumors of cocktails that provided a next level of altering. Tales proliferated of the existence of unmarked, rarely seen bottles hidden beneath bars and off-menu drinks that were available to only the trustworthy. In pursuit of this white whale I’ve visited bars across the country, whispering my inquiry to bartenders over late-night drinks, Facebook-messaging the most open-minded bar owners I knew and cold-calling contacts of contacts within the industry: “Can you serve me a cannabis cocktail?” The replies were not promising.
“No, but if you find one, will you let me know where?”
“I have a weed tincture in my car. Want me to go get it?”
The cannabis cocktail began to sound to me more like an urban legend than an off-the-menu fact. But maybe I just wasn’t asking the right people. When I reached out to Daniel K. Nelson, a restaurateur in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he told me that he is often offered marijuana-infused cocktails at bars. In fact, he had been offered them at two bars just days before we spoke. Then again Nelson, unlike me, is a recognizable marijuana advocate: He has appeared in instructional videos on how to make weed infusions for cocktails, plus he has a bright red beard and wears a tuxedo when he goes out.
“I’ll be traveling and be in a cocktail bar in whatever city, in whatever country, and someone’s like, oh I saw you in that video,” Nelson says. “Then they run to the back and bring out the bottle.” He says these unmarked bottles, which contain marijuana infusions, are particularly pervasive in New York City, Los Angeles and Denver. “There’s a whole bunch of that going on,” he says. “It’s not hard to figure out which bars are serving it. You can find it pretty easily.”
While he may easily find bartenders willing to slip a little marijuana into his cocktail, on this matter Uncle Sam is very clear: It’s illegal. That explains why no one wants to serve a writer such as myself a cannabis cocktail, or even admit to doing so off-the-record. But why risk having these products in your bar in the first place? Maybe it’s the novelty, the allure of having something under your bar that you really, really aren’t supposed to have. “The culture of the speakeasy, the clandestine bar, very much lends itself to this,” Nelson says. “You have to knock on the door and know the password. There is an illicit aspect to it.” But for those on the other side of the business—those who want to make and sell cannabis cocktail ingredients legally—they are under another whole type of gag order.
CHAPTER 1: GOING ABOARD
Drinking marijuana with alcohol affects people differently, but many will describe the feeling as a light-hearted “body high,” as opposed to the “head high” of smoking. A shot of marijuana-laced alcohol will enter your bloodstream as quickly as a shot of vodka will—within minutes—as opposed to eating a marijuana edible, which can take up to an hour for the effects to hit you. Depending on the strain of marijuana used in the drink, it can act as a stimulant or a depressant and can give the drink a variety of flavors: nutty, fruity, earthy or hoppy, for example.
But it takes a certain level of skill to make marijuana-infused alcohol, which is colloquially referred to as Green Dragon. In order for marijuana’s psychoactive properties to be activated, it must be heated. (Tetrahydrocannabinol [THC], the chemical responsible for highs, has to go through a process called decarboxylation.) This is why you can eat raw marijuana flower and it won’t get you high.
Federal law prohibits two regulated ingredients from being sold in the same product.
When used in baked goods, marijuana is cooked in a fat or oil. The problem with trying to translate that to an alcohol product is that fat is not alcohol soluble. The most common solution to this problem is nitrous infusion, a method bartenders already use to infuse spirits with other herbs. For many bartenders who consider themselves liquid chefs, and who are already making infusions with plants like lemongrass, cannabis is just another herb for them to play with.
However, federal law prohibits two regulated ingredients from being sold in the same product. All four states where recreational marijuana is legal (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington State) will not grant liquor licenses and retail marijuana licenses to the same establishments. So bars, which must operate under a liquor license, cannot sell products containing marijuana because that would require them to obtain a retail marijuana license, which they are banned from obtaining under the law. Alternately the same is true for marijuana dispensaries that want to sell alcohol; they can’t. Consuming marijuana is also illegal at bars, just as drinking alcohol (and smoking tobacco) is illegal in retail marijuana shops.
If a bar is caught selling a product containing marijuana, it will undoubtedly lose its liquor license and the owner will more than likely be charged with a felony. A person who holds a liquor license cannot even give a personal loan to someone with a marijuana license. “The implications just go on and on,” Nelson says. “Certain people don’t want to go on record about this at all. You definitely wouldn’t want a piece of paper laying around saying Johnny’s Ganja Rum is on the menu.”
CHAPTER 2: HARK!
In 2012 Mike Stankovich, beverage director of Roberta’s pizza shop in Brooklyn, made headlines when he threw a weed-themed dinner and cocktail party. “Roberta’s was so high profile at the time,” Stankovich says. “It was in the early days when we were doing crazy stuff.”
Afterwards, no one came asking questions, not the police and not the liquor board. Stankovich believes it was because the party was held at a private location near Roberta’s, not actually at Roberta’s. “We weren’t selling anything and it got reported after the fact,” he says. “I’m not a lawyer, but I think they would have to physically catch you doing it.”
For Stankovich, making marijuana-based cocktail ingredients was a natural progression from playing with bitters and tinctures at home. He became fascinated by the way he could regulate his high once he ascertained how strong the tincture was. “That’s kind of what the Roberta’s dinner was about,” he says. “It wasn’t just hey, let’s get fucked up, it was like if weed becomes legal and there are different strains, how does each one affect flavor differently, how do they affect your body, how do you extract them?”
After the publicity, strangers would often come into Roberta’s and try to order weed cocktails. “They really thought it was like a thing that we could do. And we were like, c’mon, that’s not something we actually offer.” While Stankovich says he didn’t offer them at Roberta’s, when he lived in Boston a decade ago, he knew of two bars—one a dive bar and one a speakeasy—that served a secret cannabis cocktail called the Missing Link. The bar owners didn’t even know the bartenders were making it.
CHAPTER 3: THE ALBATROSS
Portland, Oregon-based entrepreneur Camille Messina gets two reactions when she tells people that she operates a cannabis bitters company: “It’s either, oh my god, I can’t believe that actually exists! That’s amazing! Or it’s, what are bitters?” she says.
Messina, who has had a lifelong interest in plants including marijuana, got started in this industry like most, by playing around with her own bitters. “When legalization happened here, I thought, this is my moment,” she says. “Cannabis bitters hadn’t been done and they have a really wide variety of medicinal applications. They can also be super delicious and have a spirit of fun and celebration behind them.”
In May 2015 she launched her company, Messina Bitters, and began navigating the tricky waters of producing a legal marijuana product. Messina has to be licensed through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC)—because she is producing a product that contains a regulated substance, marijuana—and the Oregon Health Authority—because that product is considered an edible. She follows strict commercial kitchen procedures, has security cameras with live feeds running at all times and uses a bank-grade vault, all requirements for her business. The intense legal scrutiny and expense to get a business up to compliance is enough to deter most people from even entering the legal market. “You have to either have a significant amount of savings or you have to have an investor,” she says. “You also have build out your own kitchen, buy commercial grade locks…The list goes on and on.”
And while Messina Bitters could obviously be used as an additive to cocktails, Messina is prohibited from advertising that. “Cannabis-infused cocktails have been going on for a really long time,” she says. “There is a really smart way to consume booze and cannabis together. I’d love to talk about this kind of stuff with my customers, but there is language in the rules that forbids any of that kind of advertising.” Violating those rules would be grounds to revoke her license.
Wouldn’t it be the best idea to talk about the safe ways to be able to find these things?
Camille Messina, Founder, Messina Bitters
Messina makes her bitters from herbs such as cardamom, allspice, cinnamon and vanilla bean. She steeps them in cane sugar alcohol for about a week. Then she strains out the herbs and makes a tea out of them. Then she blends the tea, the alcohol and a cannabis-infused oil together to create the bitters. Messina Bitters are sold in 1-ounce bottles with an eyedropper; Messina works with a chemist to ensure that each dropper-full of bitters contains 5 mg of THC. “It’s really easy to get exactly how much you want,” she says. “It’s really low dose in the scope of things. There are some cookies out there that have 100 mg. And I’m starting with just 5.” She says 10 mg (two droppers-full) are typically enough for the average person. She doesn’t exceed 20 mg of bitters throughout the night. Her bitters are sold in four dispensaries in and around Portland and she is in talks now with a distribution company.
Meanwhile, dispensaries sell other products such as sodas and syrups that can and more than likely are being used to mix up marijuana cocktails at home. “People are using those things in cocktails for sure,” Messina says. “But I’m definitely the only [producer] who’s talking about it. These other companies aren’t addressing booze in any way or pursuing the conversation about how to drink it in a way that is fun and safe. The real problem is not even being able to talk about it. If we know something is already happening, wouldn’t it be the best idea to talk about the safe ways to be able to find these things? Someone in my position can help guide people who are trying it for the first time. But if I can’t even have that conversation, isn’t that more risky?”
Producers like Messina have a lot to lose if they are caught breaking these rules. “We’ve invested our life savings into these things,” she says. Messina hosts pop-up dinner and cocktail parties at restaurants on occasion, but doesn’t use her THC-based product, and would never even ask the restaurant owners if she could. “If I did and it got out, there would be no question that their liquor license would get revoked,” she says. “People are trying to play it safe. There’s so much oversight right now that I don’t think anyone’s willing to take that risk.”
CHAPTER 4: THE WHALE WATCH
As it turns out, marijuana is not the first controlled substance that bartenders have added to cocktail menus and gotten away with. Tobacco is routinely used as a potent flavoring in bitters, tinctures and syrups at bars across the country, nicotine be damned. For example, Ball and Chain, a Cuban bar in Miami, makes an Old Fashioned with tobacco bitters and garnishes the drink with a tobacco leaf. Theoretically a bar that sold ingredients containing tobacco would also need to hold a retail tobacco license, right? Well, not if no one’s checking.
At Ida Claire, a Southern restaurant north of Dallas, one of its most buzzed about cocktails is its tobacco-peach julep. Beverage director Bonnie Wilson makes simple syrup for the drink using an heirloom varietal of Virginia pipe tobacco. The cooking process brings out the nicotine of the tobacco. “If you taste the tobacco syrup straight, especially if you’re not a smoker, you can really feel that nicotine tingle on the back of your throat,” Wilson says. “I think it’s really cool. It gives the drink a lot of authenticity.” She has no idea how much nicotine is in each drink.
To be honest, I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. We’re flying under the radar.
Bonnie Wilson, Beverage Director, Ida Claire
Even though the tobacco-peach julep has been publicized extensively, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission (TABC) has never questioned Wilson about it. “To be honest, I didn’t ask anybody’s permission to do it,” she says. “We’ve been blessed that we’re flying under the radar right now. For the most part we do everything above board, and unless you’re being investigated for something like fraud, the TABC isn’t going to take too hard of a look.” Wilson has never heard of the TABC even asking questions about what ingredients are on a cocktail menu.
Ida Claire’s tobacco syrup has encouraged Wilson’s bartenders to experiment with other herb syrups and infusions at home, including marijuana. “We aren’t serving that in the restaurant, obviously, but they tell me about it,” she says. “If I had a dinky little bar that only opened at night and somebody wanted that, I would totally do it. They can serve it in Colorado, right?”
CHAPTER 5: THE CHASE
On my voyage for one white whale, I kept stumbling upon rumors of others: A Napa winery that makes cannabis-infused wine. A New York City brewery that makes marijuana-infused beer. A San Francisco bar that serves an amaro infused with coca (cocaine) leaves. Bartenders and culinary enthusiasts will continue to concoct drug-alcohol infusions, regardless of the laws. When Stankovich worked at Roberta’s in Brooklyn (he now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he is opening his own bar), he joked about throwing another dinner party, this time making psychedelic mushroom-infused drinks. “It never happened,” he says. “I actually like mushrooms and the last place I think I’d ever want to do mushrooms is in a bar.”
As our society relaxes its stance toward cannabis, easing the regulations governing how people can experiment with drugs and alcohol would bring it out from the shadows. That could make drug-alcohol combinations safer for everyone: If dosages were measured and labeled like Messina Bitters, for example, people could imbibe more responsibly since no one really knows what they’re drinking from those Wild West bottles being passed around the bar.
But Daniel K. Nelson, for all of his optimism about what this industry could become, doesn’t have hope that the marijuana and liquor businesses will ever work together. “Alcohol is so heavily regulated,” he says. “The way marijuana advocacy is going, they don’t want to be linked to that structure at all. I think it would be really fantastic, I’d love for it to happen, but I really don’t see the climate changing.”
Maybe I never will find a publicly available weed cocktail. But I know they’ll always be there, beneath the surface and under the bar, close by but never seen just like a whale passing under a fishing boat.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She probably didn’t score any weed because she looks like a fed. Find her on Twitter: @amshep