Hemp and alcohol do not mix. At least, that’s according to the federal agency that oversees such things, which prohibits any alcoholic drink from containing controlled substances. It includes THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. CBD – the non-psychoactive ingredient – is another matter, and in some circles it is considered legal to mix with alcohol, although this is not yet fully settled. But in short, don’t look for an alcoholic beer infused with THC or bourbon to appear on your store shelves anytime soon.
However, everyone knows that cannabis and alcohol as well completely mixed All the time by people. That is, they are both social drugs, which are best enjoyed with friends in a relaxed environment. And it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs find ways to dance between the two while coloring within the lines of legal code.
Early brewers were on the market with hybrid concoctions, perhaps not surprising given that cannabis and hops have similar aromas and may be taxonomically related. Breweries in some of the 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) where recreational herbalists are allowed have eliminated drinking non-alcoholic beer with THC for some time. One of the best known is Lagunitas Hi-Fi Hops, a line of beer that contains zero percent alcohol and 5 milligrams of THC per bottle — only available in California and Colorado. The rise of beer has not escaped the attention of other major players. Anheuser-Busch InBev – the world’s largest beer maker – has partnered with Canadian cannabis producer and distributor Tilray to explore making beer that contains both CBD and THC.
Then there is the THC wine. In 2017, Northern California winery Rebel Coast was the first to release a THC-containing wine, an alcohol-free Sauvignon Blanc blanc that contains 20mg of THC. Since then, it has been followed up with sparkling liquors made with THC.
And now the cannabis party is joined by spirits – or perhaps “spirits,” more precisely. Mxxn (pronounced “Moon”) will soon release three non-alcoholic spirits designed to remember (though not imitate) three classic wines. These include London Dry, Jalisco Agave, and Kentucky Oak. It’s formulated, according to the Mxxn website, as a “one-to-one non-alcoholic alternative to gin, tequila, and bourbon.”
“How do you have a similar experience with drinking alcohol, without drinking alcohol?” asks Darnell Smith, founder of Mxxn.
Smith has a background in the liquor industry, including marketing gigs with both Pernod Ricard and Diageo. He found that long days with lots of alcohol were not ideal for his health, and along the way he began making his own marijuana infusions. He will order a non-alcoholic drink and discreetly add a few drops of THC.
A decade later, he was working as a marketing consultant for a non-alcoholic brand, and one day his wife pointed out the obvious. “It hit me on the head,” he says. The wheels have been turned for the Mxxn.
“We are essentially an intellectual property company,” he notes. “I do everything except the active ingredient, and we license partners in both [THC-legal] It states who can work with the active ingredient.”
The flavor development process took about three years. He worked with many houses of flavors, along the way wandering many dead ends. “For the longest time, we’ve been trying to make it taste like spirit, as if you’re coming out of the bottle, and sipping neatly.” He says. And that was the wrong way to do it because there is no substitute for ethanol. So we had to take a step back and start over and really develop it through the cocktail bowl, making sure we could create a flavor system that wasn’t diluted.”
With prototypes on hand, he invited half a dozen bartenders in Northern California to test it out by brewing drinks. “From the olfactory senses and how they feel and in terms of viscosity, we paid attention to every detail,” Smith said.
The gin was the first they discovered, then came the cactus. Kentucky Oak was the hardest to solve, but Smith is happy with what they came up with – a potion designed to be mixed into cocktails. “It’s a new twist on the old fashioned,” he says. “The old fashioned will remind you, but you’ll know it’s something new.”
The three Mxxn products will be launched in California in early 2022, with plans to roll out to other cannabis-friendly states later in the year.
In New York, Flyers Cocktail Co. launched in 2021, releasing three “full-spectrum” alcohol-free fizzy cocktails. While CBD and THC soft drinks have proliferated in the last half-decade, they have usually chased the White Claw market, not the serious cocktail drinker.
“Everyone tries to be LaCroix for CBD,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner of the award-winning Leyenda Bar in Brooklyn and co-founder of Speed rack bartender fundraising contest. (Her sister Tess Mix is a former employee of The Daily Beast.) “It’s like introducing an artificial fruit flavor here, and that’s trying to hide that kind of unmaskable flavor.”
Mix was recruited by the founders of Flyers, Australians Craig Lewis and Miles McKirdy, and joined the company and held the title of Chief Flavors Officer.
“I would be bold enough to say we are the first cannabis cocktail in America,” McCurdy says. “Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of cannabis drinks out there. But no one has approached it that way. It’s basically taking some of the world’s most sought-after cocktails, breaking them down, substituting alcohol for cannabis, and then building them again.”
To start, they worked with a supplier to source a CBD extract that contained the full spectrum of hemp, even though less than 0.3 percent was THC. There are plans in the works to release THC versions of these non-alcoholic beverages sometime in 2022.
“What these guys said to me at first,” Mix says, “was, ‘We don’t want to make a carbonate. We want to make something that tastes like. We’re interested in making a cocktail.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s what I do.'”
So I set out to work with the original flavors of CBD, which she described as a blend of grass (of course) and “wet woodland floor” with some minerals and rocks.
“It’s very acidic,” she says. “So, I thought, let’s try to think of what that taste is and use as a flavoring agent.” Compare it to mixing it with chewing raw gentian root, a commonly used ingredient in gallbladder. “It’s not exactly bland, is it? But it can make things very tasty, and gentian and CBD have some very similar flavor attributes.”
I worked through 45 iterations of different CBD cocktails to reach the company’s three recently released: Tokyo Marg (inspired by yuzu fruit), Sydney Spritz (with amaro and citrus profile) and Brooklyn Gold (oak barrel and cola notes). “Usually when I make cocktails, I start with a rough spirit, take tasting notes and then Mr. Potato Head my way from that spirit into a cocktail.” For example, for Brooklyn Gold, “I use CBD almost as much as tannins in a barrel,” she says. “It’s like whiskey coke meets old fashioned.” So far, these are only available in New York.
The Flyers team anticipates that high-end CBD and THC drinks will eventually be available in bars (after some sweeping changes to legal codes), where they will join mocktails as alternatives to alcoholic beverages. “We’ve seen it happen with menus and food,” McCurdy says. “Previously, there was an all-meat menu and a weird little vegetarian option on the side. Now, it’s all together and no one cares. So this is how we anticipate the future for workplace consumption.”
Mix has not yet begun formulating canned drinks that contain THC only and expects this to include a flavor profile that is slightly different from CBD. “I’m sure it could work,” she says, “but we have to make some adjustments.”
Cannabis beverages are among the fastest growing segments of the recreational cannabis market, Global Industry Analyst Inc. To exceed $2 billion globally in four years – up from about $800 million today.
“I think consumption habits are changing,” says Smith, founder of Mxxn. “And there is room for more options. We want to be one of the leaders when it comes to these options.”