Cannabis and alcohol don’t mix. At least, that’s according to the federal agency that oversees such things, and which prohibits any alcoholic beverage from containing a controlled substance. That includes THC—the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. CBD—the non-psychoactive ingredient—is another matter, and in some precincts it’s considered legal to mix with alcohol, although this has yet to be fully sorted out. But in short, don’t look for a THC-infused alcoholic beer or bourbon to appear on your store shelves anytime soon.
Yet, everybody knows that cannabis and alcohol are totally mixed all the time by people. That is, they’re both social drugs, best enjoyed with friends in a relaxed setting. And—not surprisingly—entrepreneurs have been finding ways to dance between the two while coloring within the lines of the legal code.
Brewers were early to the market with hybrid concoctions, perhaps no surprise given that cannabis and hops have similar aromas and may be taxonomically related. Craft brewers in some of the 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) where recreational weed is legal have been dabbling with infusing non-alcoholic beer with THC for some time. Among the best known is Lagunitas Hi-Fi Hops, a line of beer that contains zero percent alcohol and 5 milligrams of THC per bottle—available only in California and Colorado. The rise of canna-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 a beer containing both CBD and THC.
Then there’s THC wine. In 2017, Northern California winery Rebel Coast was the first to release a THC-infused wine, an alcohol-free sauvignon blanc containing 20mg of THC. It’s since followed up with THC-spiked sparkling wines and seltzers.
And now joining the cannabis party are spirits—or perhaps more accurately “spirits.” Mxxn (pronounced “Moon”) will soon be releasing three non-alcoholic spirits designed to recall (although not mimic) three classic types of liquor. These include London Dry, Jalisco Agave, and Kentucky Oak. These are formulated, according to Mxxn’s website, as a “one-to-one non-alcoholic replacement for gin, tequila and bourbon.”
“How do you have a similar experience of having alcohol, without having the 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 combined with lots of liquor wasn’t ideal for his health, and along the way he started to make his own marijuana infusions. He would order a non-alcoholic drink and discreetly add a few drops of THC.
A decade later, he was working as a marketing consultant with a nonalcoholic spirit brand and one day his wife pointed out the obvious. “And it smacked me on the head,” he says. The wheels were set in motion for Mxxn.
“We’re basically an intellectual property company,” he notes. “I do everything except the active ingredient, and we license partners in each of the [THC-legal] states who can work with the active ingredient.”
The process of developing the flavors took about three years. He worked with several flavor houses, along the way wandering down several dead ends. “For the longest time, we were trying to make it taste like a spirit, like out of the bottle, sipped neat.” he says. “And that was the wrong way to do it because there is no replacement for ethanol. So we had to take a step back and start over and really develop it through the vessel of cocktails, making sure that we can create a flavor system that didn’t get watered down.”
With prototypes in hand, he invited a half-dozen northern California bartenders to test them by concocting drinks. “From olfactory senses and how it feels and from a viscosity standpoint, we paid attention to every single detail,” Smith said.
Gin was the first they figured out, then came agave. Kentucky Oak was the trickiest to nail down, but Smith is happy with what they came up with—a potion that’s designed to be mixed in cocktails. “It makes a new twist on an Old-Fashioned,” he says. “It will remind you of an Old-Fashioned, but you’ll know it’s something new.”
Mxxn’s three products will be released in California in early 2022, with plans to roll out to other cannabis-friendly states later in the year.
“Cannabis beverages are among the fastest growing segments of the recreational cannabis market.”
In New York, Flyers Cocktail Co. was launched in 2021, releasing three “full-spectrum hemp CBD” carbonated no-alcohol cocktails. While carbonated CBD and THC drinks have proliferated in the last half-decade, they’ve typically chased after the White Claw market, not the serious cocktail drinker.
“Everybody is trying to be the LaCroix of CBD,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner of award-winning bar Leyenda in Brooklyn and co-founder of the fundraising bartender competition Speed Rack. (Her sister Tess Mix is a former employee of the Daily Beast.) “It’s like, insert artificial fruit flavor here, that’s attempting to mask this kind of unmaskable flavor.”
Mix was recruited by Flyers founders, Australians Craig Lewis and Miles McKirdy, and came on board with the title of “chief flavor officer.”
“I’d actually be bold enough to say we’re America’s first cannabis cocktail,” says McKirdy. “Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of cannabis drinks out there. But no one’s ever approached it this way. It’s basically taking some of the world’s most sought-after cocktails, deconstructing them, and replacing the alcohol with cannabis, then building it back up.”
To start, they worked with a supplier to source a CBD extract that contains a full range of cannabinoids, although with less than 0.3 percent THC. Plans are in the works to release THC versions of these no-alcohol drinks sometime in 2022.
“What these guys first said to me,” Mix says, “was, ‘We don’t want to make a seltzer. We want to make something that tastes like something. We’re interested in making a cocktail.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s what I do.’”
So she set about working with the flavors native to CBD, which she describes as a blend of grassiness (of course) and “dank forest floor” with some minerality and rock.
“And it’s quite acidic,” she says. “So, I thought, let’s try to think about what this taste is and use it as a flavoring agent.” Mix compared it to chewing on raw gentian root, an ingredient commonly used in bitters. “It’s not exactly pleasant, right? But it can make things very delicious, and gentian and CBD do have some very similar flavor profiles to them.”
She worked through 45 iterations of different CBD cocktails to arrive at the three the firm recently released: Tokyo Marg (inspired by yuzu fruit), Sydney Spritz (with an amaro and citrus profile) and Brooklyn Gold (oak barrel and cola notes). “Usually when I make cocktails, I start with a base spirit, take tasting notes and then Mr. Potato Head my way from that spirit to a cocktail.” For instance, for the Brooklyn Gold, “I use the CBD almost like the tannins in a barrel,” she says. “It’s like a whiskey coke meets an Old-Fashioned.” To date, these are available only in New York.
The Flyers team anticipates sophisticated CBD and THC drinks will eventually be available in bars (following some sweeping changes in legal codes), where they would join mocktails as alternatives to alcoholic drinks. “We saw that happen with menus and food,” McKirdy says. “Previously, there was a menu with all meat and a weird little vegetarian option on the side. Now, it’s all together and no one cares. So that’s how we anticipate the future for on-premise consumption.”
Mix hasn’t yet started formulating for THC-only canned drinks and anticipates that this will involve a flavor profile that’s subtly different than CBD. “I’m sure it could work,” she says, “but we’d have to do some tweaking.”
Cannabis beverages are among the fastest growing segments of the recreational cannabis market, and Global Industry Analysts Inc. predicts it will top $2 billion globally in four years—up from around $800 million today.
“I do think consumption habits are changing,” says Smith, Mxxn’s founder. “And there’s space for more options. We want to be one of the leaders when it comes to those options.”