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How Safe are Your Cocktail Ingredients? - Let’s Find Out!


Eucalyptus leaves, activated carbon, lemons, wormwood and a cigar layed on a table

Hello, Friends of Cocktails! Are your cocktails dangerous? Is your Super Juice super safe? We all know about the dangers of alcohol… right? But we should also know about the possible threats of some of the ingredients used to make your signature concoctions, as some are pretty straightforward… but some are a little bit more tricky. So today we’ll go over some of the ingredients used in cocktails, old classics or signature cocktails created by mixologists to see why they can be dangerous and how to use them safely - if that’s even possible.


There are some great resources on safety in ingredients and in techniques, available online and in print. I’ll be quoting mostly two today, one being CocktailSafe.org and the other one the book The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. CocktailSafe is the project of drinks writer Camper English, with Avery Glasser as an advisor. The project is supported by a grant from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. If you’re making cocktails for yourself, your family and friends, or customers at a bar, safety should be your number one priority, followed closely by balance of course. 


Before we start I’ll mix up one of my favorite cocktails, and probably the simplest one out there, the Whiskey Highball. But I will not be using whisky, I’m using Arbejd - A 9 days old Pure Malt at 47% ABV. This not-whisky is made by EtOH Spirits, using ultrasound and a range of other techniques with which they were able to accelerate the aging of spirits from years to just days. So let’s start, it’s Cocktail Safety Tvermime!


Not a Whiskey Highball

● 60mL · 2oz EthOH Arbejd - A

● 2 drops 20% Saline Solution

● Top up with Soda Water

● Lemon Peel


Mix this smoky expression with a little saline solution and soda over ice, add some lemon essential oils and it’s done. You can also try it in one of my highball variations, like the Clarified Apple & Scotch Highball or the HighFall cocktail, made with whiskey, pear and buckwheat. Cheers!

 

So, why are we talking about dangerous ingredients? Crafting your own drinks, combining new flavors, saving money and lowering the impact on the environment are just some of the great benefits of mixology - but you need to be aware of what you’re using and how. So let’s go over some of these ingredients now.


Let’s start with wormwood. This is used to flavor absinthe, bitters, bitter liqueurs and it is actually what vermouth is named after. So if it’s in your Martinis, Negronis and Manhattan, how can it be dangerous? Because wormwood contains thujone, which allegedly has hallucinogenic effects - that’s where the myth surrounding absinthe and hallucinations originates, but it’s more likely the high alcohol content was to blame. 


Thujone is regulated in most countries and beverages containing wormwood in the US must be legally thujone-free, meaning they contain less than 10 parts per million of thujone. But you can of course buy wormwood online in many forms. In one case, a person consumed about a third of an ounce or 10mL of oil of wormwood, and it caused kidney failure and other serious problems, so be careful when using wormwood tinctures or dried wormwood in your ingredients. 


Next up, activated charcoal, the popular ingredient for Halloween Cocktails and an Instagram “detox” trend that spanned from beauty products to ice cream. This is a form of carbon prepared to have a large surface area, which makes other substances easier to stick to it. For instance, it is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning or medication overdoses, where it prevents them from being absorbed from the stomach into the bloodstream. 


This also means that it can bind vitamins, minerals and the medication you may need and make them ineffective. That’s why it was banned in some places as "a food additive or coloring agent”, and since all it really does for a cocktail is to turn it black there are other, much safer options, like black food coloring, ground black sesame seeds, black currant or squid ink, which I used in a Halloween Penicillin, back in 2020. 


Next up, eucalyptus. There are many varieties, koalas can’t get enough of the stuff and its nectar gets parrots drunk. Eucalyptus is used in bitters, vermouth and gin, but also experimented with by bartenders for syrups and infusions. This Australian tree produces many things that can be used for cocktails, but not every tree and not anywhere you get it. 



I got some eucalyptus at a floral shop, so even if this was the right species, I wouldn’t use it because it’s probably been sprayed. You should keep in mind that only Eucalyptus globolus, the so-called blue gum, is considered a safe ingredient by the FDA and it has only approved the use of the leaves, not the essential oil extract. 


Eucalyptus oil is a potent substance that can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps if consumed in large amounts. More about the dangers of eucalyptus, and the hangover it can cause, when we reach the Bottom of The Glass, but next up is tobacco. Not long ago I’ve received DMs with questions on how to make tobacco infused syrup, and according to CocktailSafe, some bars have been serving cocktails containing tobacco infused into syrups, bitters, and base spirits in recent years. 


With strict tobacco laws this is not legal. More importantly, tobacco ingested via drinking delivers far more nicotine compared to smoking. There have been reported incidents of consumers and bartenders becoming ill after drinking very small quantities of tobacco-infused products. Nicotine is as dangerous as hydrogen cyanide and my friend Darcy O’Neil’s from Art of Drink wrote a great blog post with specific calculations and why you don’t want tobacco mixed into your drink.


One known tobacco liqueur, Perique, is distilled with tobacco and leaves no traces of nicotine in the drink, but it was still not approved by the US government. If you like tobacco flavor and are aware of the risks of nicotine just enjoy a good cigar with a well-made cocktail and don’t mix the two, but if you still want to imitate flavors of smoke or tobacco in your cocktails, one alternative is tobacco bitters that do not contain any tobacco, but are typically flavored with tea.

 

You can also use lapsang souchong tea, smoky ingredients such as Islay scotch whisky or mezcal, or using a smoker with wood chips. But now for our final ingredient today, let’s take a look at the lemon. Innocent enough right? Yes, if you’re squeezing it and using the juice, but the peels are often a different story. Citrus fruits are coated in wax to protect it in transit, make it look shiny, slow down moisture loss and extend shelf-life. 



Since citrus is assumed to be for eating and juicing, not for the peels to be 'processed' into food or drink, it may be sprayed with a synthetic dye and not always labeled as such - and yes, both organic and conventional citrus can be waxed, but the wax for non-organic citrus is allowed to be made from petroleum-derived ingredients and treated with preservatives or fungicides. Since citrus peels are often used, even for infusions in alcohol or blended into super juice, I suggest always using organic citrus and washing it thoroughly. 


Oh and also beware of getting citrus juices on your skin before going into the sun. This can cause severe sunburns known also as the Margarita Burn, which is easier to remember than the oficial medical term of Phytophotodermatitis. With that we’ve reached the Bottom of The Glass, and as promised, a fun fact about eucalyptus and how it gets lorikeets drunk every year. 


These brightly colored parrots get drunk when their normal food source, eucalyptus nectar, ferments on the tree. They can find themselves unable to fly, stumbling around on the ground and can even appear hung over the next day - and yes, I’d love to know what that looks like for parrots as well. But to get serious, the bottom line for today is knowing what you’re using in cocktails, do your research, and if you’re using a tried and tested recipe, follow it.

 

And when you’re serving the drinks to somebody else, make sure you let them know what’s in the drink, and if you’re not sure about an ingredient it’s better to not use it. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this episode and possibly learned something new. Until next time, stay safe, and cheers!




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