Buzzing booze: The growth of CBD drinks

Lucy Britner

Lucy Britner

06 November 2019

CBD has been the hot topic on everyone’s lips in plenty of different sectors, and the drinks industry hasn’t been shy in getting involved either. Lucy Britner explores the calming world of cannabidiol

Brace yourself for the wave of CBD drinks about to come crashing down on the bar. The hottest ingredient in town is already big business for just about every sector – from health care products to pet food – and the spirits industry is just getting started. 

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of more than 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis. The non-psychoactive component, also present in hemp, is claimed to help with pain, insomnia and anxiety.

CBD is the most exciting thing to happen to drinks since the gin boom

Sally Wynter, Muhu

So far, a handful of CBD spirits launches have hit the UK and next month, start-up brand Muhu will add to the number with a CBD-infused gin. Muhu joins a CBD-infused gin from Top Beverages, as well as CBD rums from both Top Beverages and Halewood Wines & Spirits.

Innovation in CBD spirits is likely to remain in the gin and rum categories, not least because they are both enjoying a period of popularity, but also because they are not as regulated as the likes of whisky, cognac and tequila.

‘CBD is the most exciting thing to happen to drinks since the gin boom,’ Muhu founder Sally Wynter tells Imbibe. ‘I can only see more and more growth over the next few years.’

Wynter believes CBD offers something ‘far more exciting to the consumer than just pretty colours or flavours’.

‘I'm confident it will open up a whole new space within the industry that we haven't seen before,’ she says.

While Euromonitor International’s industry manager for alcoholic drinks, Spiros Malandrakis believes there is room for innovation, he also says ‘we are in danger of living through a second flavoured vodka’ phase.

‘Two years ago I said CBD was already in the process of jumping the shark,’ he says of the wider CBD category. ‘I saw it recently in bed sheets!’

But he also believes there’s still a way to go before the alcohol industry reaches that stage. ‘Alcohol has been cautious because of the potential and perceived cross-fade,’ he says.

So far, none of the larger, multinational spirits producers have dipped their toes in CBD, instead they’ve left the initial foray to start-ups and smaller players.

Creating CBD spirits

Being one of the frontrunners means doing a lot of legwork on your own. Wynter says researching CBD suppliers lead her to ‘a lot of cowboys’ as well as legitimate sources.

‘When I was looking to find a CBD supplier for Muhu, I spoke with about 10-15 different companies before finding the partner I'm working with currently,’ she explains. ‘Much of the CBD in the UK comes from the US and Canada, by virtue of the more established marketplace.’

Besides the research element, Wynter also says ‘plenty of due diligence’ is necessary to ensure both the quality of CBD and also the correct THC levels. The tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cannabinoid is the psychoactive one, and Wynter says that to stay in line with EU regulations, CBD must contain less than 0.2% THC.

Once she had sourced the right CBD, Wynter says her biggest hurdle was actually product development, especially since her budget to bring the brand to market was just £1,300.

Bartenders are conducting their own experiments, with CBD popping up as a cocktail ingredient

‘Due to CBD being a tricky thing to put into gin without ruining the clarity of your product, I faced a hefty £2,500 charge from the distillery I had partnered with to do each still trial,’ she explains. ‘I was advised it could take four or more still trials, and even then there would be no guarantee of success.’

Wynter almost gave up on the idea, until the distillery she had lined up to bottle the product offered to help with the trials.

‘I guess I had convinced them that my concept was really something that people would want to buy,’ she says, declining to name the distillery. ‘It was a lifeline which really made the start-up possible - without which Muhu would definitely have been dead in the water.’ 

Bringing it to the bar

Innovation is also happening at bar level, and in true on-trade fashion, bartenders are conducting their own experiments, with CBD popping up as a cocktail ingredient. London bar Dear Alice, for example, this month used social media to announce the Gin & Chronic - ‘a traditional G&T... with one millimetre of CBD oil’.

In Fitzrovia, Mr Fogg’s House of Botanicals offer Bhang - CBD oil-washed Alipús San Juan mezcal, Green Chartreuse herbal liqueur, Nardini Acqua di Cedro liqueur, fresh lime juice, sugar syrup and fresh tarragon.

Looking forward, Euromonitor’s Malandrakis warns the industry against the ‘bandwagon effect’ – touting CBD on a label or menu just for the sake of it. He believes such a move will cause a backlash from disillusioned consumers.

Elsewhere, he also speculates that the 100-plus other cannabinoids present in cannabis could provide a generous innovation pipeline.

‘We haven’t even scratched the surface,’ he concludes.

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