The rise of experimentation in mixology may make the consumer experience more exciting, but it can also make it more dangerous. Camper English highlights the ingredients that bartenders should watch out for as they craft their daring drinks
In our hyper-connected bartending world, new and/or fun visual concepts like dehydrated citrus wheels, colour-changing tea, clarified milk punch and the 'throwing’ cocktail technique spread
fast from bar to bar and country to country. But so, too, do some not-so-great ideas, including tobacco infusions, activated charcoal, and Instagram-glam poisonous plant garnishes.
While some members of the global cocktail community have done their best to stem the flow of potentially harmful cocktails, the rate at which risky ingredients are being adopted has outpaced our ability to warn people against them.
In order to counteract the rapid spread of dangerous drinks, the website cocktailsafe.org was established. I built it with the support of – and a grant from – the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, along with the expertise of some industry pros.
The site is designed to be a centralised reference for safety in cocktail ingredients and techniques that people can read and share. It also lists the legal status of many ingredients in the US and Canada, and will include more UK and EU information going forward. More than 80 pages of information about hundreds of questionable ingredients are listed on Cocktailsafe, but the most problematic ones observed in bars currently are discussed below. Here are a few things to watch out for.
THERE ARE LIMITS
Many botanicals – or the chemical compounds contained within them – used in homemade cocktail ingredients are limited by law, as they can be dangerous at high levels. Thujone in alcoholic beverages made from Artemisia species like grand wormwood in absinthe and vermouth; quinine in tonic water and amari; and beta-asarone in calamus (sweet flag) used in vermouths and bitters are all limited in different amounts in different countries.
When it comes to homemade syrups, bitters and tinctures, the challenge for bartenders is to know or estimate the levels of those controlled compounds in order to stay compliant with safety
regulations. Typically, herbs available for sale aren’t labelled as to the quantity by weight or volume of limited chemical compounds within them, as these can only be measured with expensive testing. In the case of wormwood, however, some tinctures can be procured with the thujone levels listed on the bottle, though this isn’t very common.
Tonic syrup is made from quinine-containing cinchona tree bark, and though we have never seen bark for sale labelled with its quinine content, a literature review gives clues as to the quinine
levels by weight in different varieties of bark. Bittermens Bitters co-founder Avery Glasser estimated that a popular online recipe, if made with high-quinine cinchona bark and left unfiltered, could contain about double the legal limit of quinine per serving. More recently Glasser and others have become concerned with quinidine, another alkaloid found in cinchona bark that could impact a small percentage of people with an often-undiagnosed heart condition at even lower levels.
Most often the people impacted by overdoses of quinine have not been bar customers, but bartenders testing their tonic syrup recipes over and over
Most often the people impacted by overdoses of quinine have not been bar customers, but bartenders testing their tonic syrup recipes over and over. Cinchonism is a (usually temporary) condition with symptoms of tinnitus, vertigo and muscle weakness, among others. Several bartenders have come down with these symptoms when consuming excessive cinchona bark. To reduce the chance of cinchonism, choose solid pieces of bark rather than powder (as they are easier to filter out) and be conservative with consumption.
In most countries, tobacco isn’t just limited; it’s illegal to sell outside of full (warning label-affixed) packages, and thus not permitted to serve infused into food or drink. And yet tobacco bitters and sometimes infusions and syrups have appeared on countless cocktail menus around the world.
From a flavour perspective, tobacco notes are often cited in reviews of aged spirits like bourbon and cognac, but from a safety perspective, tobacco is a no-go. Just a few dashes of tobacco bitters have given customers dizziness, nausea and heart palpitations. That’s because infusing tobacco into alcohol can extract an estimated 20 times the nicotine compared with the amount ingested by smoking.
Another way to visualise it: One cigarette’s worth of tobacco infused into bitters can be the equivalent of one pack’s worth of nicotine. The good news is that there is a good alternative: Smoky
lapsang souchong tea makes a fine substitute for tobacco in drinks.
Vintage cocktail books seem like recipe goldmines for homemade bitters, tinctures and more. But many of the ingredients found in vintage recipes have since been proven dangerous and/or made illegal. In the back of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide was a 'Manual for the Manufacture of Cordials, Liquors, Fancy Syrups, &c.&c.’ that included recipes using ammonia, turpentine, calamus and sassafras – none of which are OK.
Bartenders recreating these recipes should first do a quick search to ensure the current legal and safety status of all ingredients. Furthermore, with online shopping it’s easy to purchase botanicals not approved for food use yet not labelled as such. For example, Glasser says, 'The calamus root for sale online in the United States typically includes both diploid (safe) and triploid (dangerous) roots as it’s intended for potpourri, not food. Unfortunately, there’s no way by just looking at it that you can tell which kind it is’.
When shopping online, also ensure essential oils and tinctures are specifically designated for food use, as many are designed for scenting beauty products and may not have edible liquid solvents. Note that the 'organic’ label can be applied to non-food products, so don’t assume that something is edible because it’s labelled 'organic’.
Fat-washing is a technique used to extract fatty flavours into alcohol by infusing something oily (such as bacon grease or bacon) into alcohol, then freezing the liquid so that the fat rises to the
surface to be scraped off. The flavour of the fatty substance remains in the liquid. However, the meat used carries the threat of botulism/bacteria poisoning if handled improperly. The alcohol alone will not sterilise the fat-washed beverage at standard abvs.
For safer fat-washing, make sure any meat used is fully cooked, refrigerate or freeze all post-fat-washed liquids, always wash pour spouts at the end of a shift and use fat-washed spirits within a few days. In general, treat the fat-washed spirit as you would a slab of meat – not stored at room temperature exposed to air.
Many bars are using liquid nitrogen to chill glassware, to make cryo-muddled herbs and to put on a bit of a show. In 2012, a woman consumed a drink with liquid nitrogen still bubbling away in it, requiring surgery to remove her stomach in order to save her life. From a consumer safety perspective, one must never allow customers to come into contact with or drink liquid nitrogen. But
improper training and handling can lead to bartender injuries as well. Not only can liquid nitrogen cause burns on skin, when it turns into a gas at room temperature it displaces oxygen in the air and can cause asphyxiation.
Liquid nitrogen should be stored in areas with good ventilation, and only in vented, pressure-relief or unsealed containers to ensure it does not cause an explosion of its container. Dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) can similarly displace oxygen, though this has proven more problematic when people have transported dry ice over long distances in their car with the windows up (such as when people drive to festivals with food supplies).
The use of non-food-safe containers to hold and store alcohol is less of a poison problem, but something that all bartenders can aspire to improve upon: When batching cocktails, non-food-
approved buckets should be avoided in favour of approved ones. Vintage lead glass crystal decanters should not be used to store high-proof alcohol, as the lead may leach out into the alcohol, and glazed ceramics made before 1970, such as vintage tiki mugs, may have lead in the glaze and should be avoided.
Finally, citrus (even organic citrus) should be washed in cold running water (soap is not thought to be helpful) before use, even for squeezing juice, but especially for any citrus used for zesting
atop drinks. Pesticides and waxes on the surface can be dragged into the interior when cutting them open before squeezing.
A recent report in The New York Times made public the new use of antibiotic sprays on citrus to fight insect infestation – a further reason to wash that fruit lest you bring its outsides in.
In the UK, laws require allergen information to be available for food and beverages served at restaurants, but a couple of ingredients are important to call out more specifically on menus. Many customers newer to cocktails will not know that falernum and orgeat contain almonds, so bars should consider making this explicit by relabelling them as ‘almond orgeat/falernum’ or starring them with an asterisk and a 'contains nuts’ explainer somewhere on the menu.
Grapefruit interacts with many common pharmaceuticals (at least 85 of them, including common cholesterol medications), and a grapefruit warning is frequently printed on prescription bottles.
Thus when grapefruit is used in a cocktail it should be explicitly stated, rather than grouped in with a 'citrus blend’, as some tiki bars are known to do. Also the tiki ingredient 'Don’s Mix’, a blend of grapefruit and cinnamon, should probably be listed as ‘grapefruit-cinnamon syrup’ or something similar for the same reason.
Cocktails these days must not only taste delicious, they must be optimised for social media. Unfortunately, some optically exciting tricks carry with them potential for harm. While carbon black is an approved food colouring in the EU (not so in the US), bartenders often reach for activated charcoal, a food additive that has been associated with 'detox’ movements. While the charcoal itself doesn’t appear to be dangerous, it adsorbs medications it comes into contact with – it’s even used in emergency rooms to treat drug overdoses. The fear when using it in bars, then, is that it may deactivate necessary medications customers have taken within a couple hours of their visit. Alternatives to turn cocktails black beyond carbon black (E153) include black sesame seeds, blackcurrants and squid or cuttlefish ink.
People are adding potentially poisonous foliage to all sorts of cocktails
Flower garnishes are no longer relegated to topping tiki drinks, but people are adding potentially poisonous foliage to all sorts of cocktails. Flowers deemed edible should be purchased from the
grocery store or farmer’s market, rather than decorative ones from the florist, lest they be coated with dyes and pesticides.
Home-grown, organic or foraged flowers should be checked for toxicity too – many common flowers including daffodils and hydrangeas are unsafe for food use. A long list of safe and unsafe
flowers can be found on cocktailsafe.org.
Speaking of foraging, we all know that one cannot simply eat any old mushroom found growing on a log in the forest, yet bartenders are bringing home other plants that may not be safe
for consumption either. Certain types of ferns, lookalike plants (hemlock resembles fennel) and some types of juniper are unsafe. Train with a professional forager before setting out alone. When
in doubt, look up your potential ingredient on Cocktailsafe or elsewhere.
Camper English is a cocktail and spirits writer and the founder of cocktailsafe.org