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Dangerous Drinks and How To Spot Them

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People sometimes overdo it at cocktail festivals. So when Avery Glasser and his wife, Janet, started feeling under the weather during an event a few years ago, they figured maybe it was just too much booze, not enough water, or maybe food poisoning.

But gradually Glasser—who with Janet co-founded Bittermens, a company that makes an assortment of liqueurs and cocktail bitters—started to notice the particulars of his symptoms. Well-versed in the botanicals that go into his own products and their possible side effects, he realized that what he was experiencing—including ringing in the ears and muscle weakness—was quite distinct.

It turned out to be cinchonism, a type of poisoning caused by an overdose of quinine. The culprit, he surmised, was the Gin & Tonic they had enjoyed at a local bar, a place that, Glasser later discovered, had been making its own tonic with cinchona bark chips but had recently switched to cinchona powder, without making the necessary adjustments to the measurements in its recipe. They didn’t realize that using the powdered form would extract cinchona’s botanical components much faster.

“If you go out and have a big meal and some drinks and you wake up in the morning and feel worse than you should, what are you gonna say?” Glasser asks. “ ‘Maybe I over-drank, maybe I ate something that was bad.’ You’re gonna blame the fish; you’re going to blame poor sanitation. You aren’t necessarily going to think ‘What were the housemade components in the cocktails?’ ”

Caveat bibitor—let the drinker beware.

Daredevil Cocktails

Amid the many pleasures of the cocktail world, many small dangers abound. Fresh juices, fruits and herbs are de rigueur—who gives a thought to whether they’ve been handled safely or cleaned well? Then there are the risks that register on our radars, that we know to keep an eye on: Raw eggs show up in fizzes and sours. Allergy-stoking nut syrups sneak into countless tiki drinks. And then there are those ingredients and techniques that are, for the lay-drinker, esoteric enough that the risks they pose may be unknown: Rendered meat-fats get “washed” into spirits, bringing a risk of E. coli and salmonella if mishandled. Infusions may contain tobacco, cinchona, wormwood or other unusual (and in some cases, dangerously toxic) botanicals. Certain citrus, herbs and other ingredients can interact with medications. Dry ice turns a punch into a spectacular cauldron of creeping vapors, but—unbeknownst to a spectacle-smitten drinker—it can freeze the lining of the stomach if swallowed.

Entering this unknown and occasionally hazardous world, drinkers need to be able to trust that bartenders know what they’re doing.

A spirit of experimentation runs through the bartending craft. At the outset of the cocktail renaissance, this was born of necessity; so many old spirits and liqueurs had vanished from the bar that people interested in creating historical drinks sometimes had no choice but to try to re-create ingredients.

Now, many of those once hard-to-find puzzle pieces—curaçao, genever, vermouths and quinquinas, various floral and herbal liqueurs—are widely available. But the proliferation of bespoke tonics, bitters and cordials continues, both in bars and among home mixologists. It’s a culture in which creative spirit and a whiff of the forbidden (thanks, Prohibition!) are dangerous-drinks-tonic-crdt kim rosenamong the appeals.

But many of the plants in the bottles we mix from came out of centuries-long traditions of herbal medicine. Many curious drinkers know something of these origins—that the quinine in tonic water was originally used to combat malaria, for example—but modern medicine has largely superseded their use, and these ingredients are now tapped primarily for flavor. This herbal history is part of the appeal in a cocktail culture obsessed with its past, but the specific effects of particular botanicals are often hazy to people on both sides of the bar. Bars aren’t mixing that juniper-forward gin to relieve customers’ flatulence, or twisting out some orange-peel oils to ease a guest’s lingering cough, but these ingredients were once used for those very effects.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) work to protect the public in a variety of ways. The FDA maintains extensive lists of tested food additives and safe ingredients. Under the TTB’s oversight, getting a booze product on the market is a long and involved process, involving permitting, formula approval and/or lab analysis, and compliance with scores of regulations. That French vermouth, that Italian amaro, the new liqueur from a local distiller—all had to pass through a net of rules, standards and laboratory testing before reaching your glass.

But the housemade bitters and cordials you see lined up behind the bar? That infusion of apricots and roadside wildflowers you’re prepping at home after a little Internet research? That stuff isn’t getting certified by anyone in a lab coat. And while no one wants to spoil the fun by screaming “Poison!” in a crowded bar, some experts worry that ambitious drink-makers may know just enough to be dangerous.

Author and plant expert Amy Stewart noted the potential for trouble while she was working on her bestselling book, The Drunken Botanist. She watched as the trend of wild foraging and the trend of DIY cocktail bitters collided. The cocktail world, she notes, tends to have “this level of bad-assery,” taking pride in taking risks. At events, she’s occasionally had people proudly reveal that they’ve eaten hemlock and are still around to brag about it, presenting their survival as though it’s evidence that the plant isn’t as toxic as reputed. “And it’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s hemlock!’ It’s probably the most well-known toxic plant on the planet,” she says.

If such instances are evidence of something, it’s how little many people understand about plants. Hemlock, Stewart says, moves its poison around within the plant, “and the levels of poison differ from day to day, depending on the weather, what time of year, whether the ground is wet or dry, so any individual part of a plant could have more or less of a dose of a particular chemical in it.”

Even with ingredients that would probably be safe, she says, what about all the variables? Not just obvious issues like food allergies.

“Are you sure you can serve this to someone with a heart condition? Are you sure it won’t conflict with medications people take?”

Take the example of a current trend: using activated charcoal in cocktails, which turns a drink a beautiful, opaque black. How could it be dangerous? After all, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through charcoal; your purifying water pitcher uses it to filter out pollutants. Activated charcoal is even used to treat cases of poisoning.

But the adsorptive quality that makes charcoal work for that purpose also works on medications, including some heart medication, birth-control pills and antidepressants. Glasser confirmed with a doctor that having such a drink within a few hours of taking a pill could well have an impact, so when a bartender pooh-poohed the idea that it could be problematic, “I was like, ‘No? Great. I’m going to make a cocktail called the See Ya in Nine Months,’ ” he says.

Overall, Stewart says, it’s important to remember that alcohol is a solvent and will pull out the chemical components of whatever it touches. That’s what happens when whiskey is put into a barrel: “You put a solvent up against a plant that happens to be an oak tree, and it grabs all the chemicals that it can get out of that oak tree,” she says. “But the solvent is very indiscriminate. It’s not going to only pick the nontoxic chemicals.”

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Smoke on the Rocks

When Glasser and beverage journalist Camper English presented a seminar on dangerous drinks at Tales of the Cocktail last year, their message to bartenders was simple: Understand your ingredients and put safety first.

English says the ingredient they’re most concerned about is tobacco, which continues to be used in bitters and tinctures. “We felt obligated to raise our voices and say it’s a really bad idea,” he says. “We both believe there’s no safe amount of tobacco you can consume in beverage form.”

It’s a question of reliable dosing, and how difficult it is to accurately measure specific chemical contents outside of a lab. The amount of nicotine that’s stripped from tobacco when it’s infused into high-proof alcohol is likely much higher than the amount you’d get from smoking a cigarette.

Tobacco is the primary culprit Glasser considers when he wonders if bartenders would even realize if they had served a drink that possibly led to someone’s illness or death. “Say they go home and pass away that night from a heart attack. That’s what happens when you have nicotine poisoning,” he says. “So unless you specifically know to autopsy for it, would you know?”

Plus, there are other, safer ways to achieve smoky flavors in cocktails, English says, pointing to Lapsang Souchong tea or Islay whisky. Even then, he says, bars should make sure not to suggest that tobacco is an actual ingredient (via menu references to “cigar bitters,” for example, that mimic the flavor but don’t actually contain tobacco) so as not to encourage drinkers to mess around with such infusions at home.

Buzz-worthy Booze

The relaxation of drug laws in a number of states has created a buzz around another plant: marijuana. Even where it’s nominally legal, few bars are prepared to work with cannabis products while it’s still illegal at a federal level.

Jason Eisner, beverage director for plant-based Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, is one of those few. He’s used a legal cannabis derivative—“I could hear our lawyer sweating when I told him what I wanted to do,” he says—to serve drinks that contain no THC but do contain cannabidiol, another chemical compound that provides physical relaxation but doesn’t have psychoactive effects.

With the federal government showing no sign of relaxing marijuana laws, though, cannabis cocktails are likely to remain controversial, and largely the province of DIY home bartenders. The topic caused a ruckus last year, when drinks writer Warren Bobrow published Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics, the first book dedicated exclusively to the subject. His recipes treat pot as a drug and a flavor, delineating tasting notes of particular strains. The book provides instructions about how to prepare cannabis for use in drinks; it’s loaded with safety warnings about combining THC and alcohol, discussing medical implications with doctors, and taking it slow.

dangerous-drinks-cannabis-crdt kim rosenBut the warnings didn’t make up for what Matthew Rowley, himself an author and historian who specializes in illicit drinks, describes as serious errors. Rowley isn’t a prohibitionist but a longtime enthusiast; he’s safely consumed cannabis drinks, and has used the plant to relieve arthritis pain. He was so aghast by what he saw as serious safety issues in Bobrow’s cannabis book that he took the unusual step of leaving a detailed, 2,200-word negative review on the book’s Amazon page under his own name.

Rowley says what troubled him most is that the book fails to account for the huge variations in THC levels among available marijuana strains—which may not pose a direct physical danger but can compromise a user’s health or safety at high levels (someone with heart disease suffering excessive THC-induced panic, for example). “If I used the cannabis I have in California,” he says, “even with a 20 percent THC strain—a strength that’s common on the West Coast—there would be about 160 milligrams of THC in this drink [if mixed following the book’s instructions],” many times what a new user should be consuming. (High Times, the marijuana culture magazine, estimates the amount of THC gleaned from smoking a bowl of quality marijuana at approximately 18 milligrams.)

Here, too, variances in how the body processes the same ingredient delivered by different methods comes into play. Smoking a joint, you tend to notice the impact pretty quickly; eating or drinking cannabis, it typically takes longer. You hear those stories, Rowley notes: “I had a brownie and I wasn’t high, so I had another one, and then Satan was coming to suck my soul out through my knees.”

Bobrow, who says he was deeply hurt by the review, feels it was unfair. He stands by his book, though he acknowledges he might make a few changes if he had it to do over. But no second edition is planned; he says his publisher never wants to touch the topic again.

Happy Mediums?

Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, wouldn’t allow his kids to eat hamburgers when they were growing up. His life is a model of cautious consumption; there’s a long list of foods he won’t eat out of safety concerns.

He’s got good reason: Marler Clark is the leading firm representing victims of food poisoning. Among hundreds of others, the firm litigated many of the cases stemming from the infamous 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in which four children died.

Legally, Marler says, a bar that makes a drink is considered the manufacturer of that drink, so the bar is strictly liable if a customer can prove he or she was sickened by it. A bartender is responsible for what they serve. Marler warns against everything from raw fruits and vegetables to animal products when it comes to making cocktails.

But in the cocktail world, where fresh ingredients are central to quality and new ways of using interesting ingredients are part of the fun, can we not assume that bar patrons and home enthusiasts are willing to live with a degree of risk?

Somewhere between viewing every mint sprig with suspicion and throwing unknown foraged mushrooms into a bottle of grain alcohol, there must be a safe middle ground.

Fortunately, there are resources—the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and EAFUS (Everything Added to Food in the United States) lists are deep and detailed, though a bit of a trial to wade through. Glasser notes that you can search the code of federal regulations as well, to see if a substance you want to work with is covered by any federal rules or restrictions.

You can also perform some common-sense tests: Ask yourself, can you find the item in the food aisles or produce section of a grocery store? Is anyone else doing this on a wide-scale, commercial level? When Glasser comes up with an idea for a new liqueur, he says, “I don’t pat myself on the back and go, ‘Oh, that’s great, I came up with something new!’ I ask, ‘Why isn’t anyone else doing this? Why aren’t the big guys doing this?’ It makes me quadruple my research.”

Beyond avoiding certain clearly dangerous ingredients, the cocktail world shouldn’t be overly alarmed about this—just appropriately cautious. Bartenders may be an experimental bunch, but the vast majority would never do anything they knew risked harming a customer. And if cocktails were sickening people left and right, it would almost certainly have gotten noticed. But Glasser’s question to bartenders—“Are you sure?”—should echo in your mind any time you pick up an unknown ingredient and think about putting it in a drink.


Proceed With Caution

Most cocktail ingredients pose no safety concerns, but here are a few that require more careful consideration. We’re not saying no; we’re saying know.

Activated Charcoal
May adsorb certain medications, such as birth-control pills, tricyclic antidepressants and heart medication.

Bittering Herbs
Wormwood contains thujone, which can be toxic and cause convulsions in high doses. Gentian may interact with blood-pressure medications.

Still federally prohibited, so risky for bars. Consider recipes carefully; different strains of marijuana may result in vastly different THC content in the final infusion. You’re also mixing alcohol with another mind-altering drug.

Too much can cause cinchonism and other health problems. The Code of Federal Regulations stipulates a maximum level of quinine in tonic at 83 parts per million. If you’re making tonic syrup, it’s safer to use bark chips than powder, as the powder is more difficult to filter. (Camper English has a good write-up on this at his blog, Alcademics.com.)

Citrus Peel
Since peel is not generally considered a food item, many citrus fruits are sprayed liberally with pesticides and even wax or dye. Use organic fruits and wash thoroughly before using.

Dry Ice/Liquid Nitrogen
Dry ice can be extremely dangerous if mishandled; it can flash-freeze skin and organs, leading to colossal medical problems. Use only with caution in controlled settings—a dry ice–enhanced punch kept behind the bar can create a bubbling cauldron effect without passing the dangerous ingredient to a customer. Double the warnings for liquid nitrogen.

Use fresh, uncracked, refrigerated eggs. Salmonella bacteria tend to sit on the shell, so minimize the egg’s contact with the shell when handling; don’t crack the egg on the edge of your tin. For added caution, pasteurized in-shell eggs are available.

Elderflower creates the beautiful floral note in liqueurs and syrups. Unripe elderberries, on the other hand, contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides.

Make sure any meat products such as bacon are fully cooked, and use minimal amounts of the fat. Strain out all remnants and handle the resulting infusion the way you’d treat the food substance you infused it with (in many cases, keeping it refrigerated and using within a few days).

Floral Garnishes
To avoid poisonous blooms and pesticides, stick to known edible flowers sourced from farmers’ markets or produce sections. There are also some online specialty suppliers.

Contains a chemical compound that impacts the body’s ability to process many prescription and over-the-counter medications (including widely prescribed cholesterol-busting statins), in some cases seriously. Make sure to list on menu descriptions.

“Leather-Aged” Cocktails and Spirits
Traditional tanning chemicals can be toxic; ensure that any leather used for aging is certified food-safe.

Safe when grated over a drink or consumed in small doses, but contain myristicin, a psychoactive compound that may be dangerous in higher doses. Take caution if infusing into high-proof spirits; use the result in very small doses.

Peanuts (actually a legume), pecans, hazelnuts and pistachios are among the most common and serious food allergens, often linked to anaphylactic shock. Menus should be transparent about any drink that includes them.

People who are allergic to almonds may have no idea what orgeat is; best to make it clear on the menu.

Stone-Fruit Pits
The kernels at the center of peach, apricot and cherry pits contain a small amount of poisonous compound called amygdalin. You’d have to eat a fair number to experience ill effects, but if you’re soaking raw pits in high-proof alcohol, you may be pulling out a lot more poison than you realize.

It’s not legal to use tobacco in food or beverages, and it’s dangerous. For a smoky touch, try a substitute instead, such as a Lapsang Souchong tea infusion, or a splash of Islay whisky.

Tonka Beans
Tonka beans contain coumarin, which has the potential to cause liver damage and is generally federally prohibited as a food additive.

Unknown Foraged Plants
And you found them near that old uranium mine? Cool. Check, please.


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