Weed beverages today are less…weedy.
“You almost forget that you’ve taken any THC at all,” says Kat Turner, chef and partner at Highly Likely Café in Los Angeles (and a friend of mine), referring to a microdosed flavored seltzer of sorts called Cann. It doesn’t contain alcohol. Out of the more than one hundred cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is its principal intoxicant. That’s generally what people are referring to when they say “weed.” That’s what gets you high.
Turner’s first encounter with a cannabis beverage happened fifteen years ago, and its flavor was either grape or cherry—she can’t quite remember which. It came in a glass bottle with a “college-stoner, Scooby-Doo-like” label that had “Soda Pot” printed on it—at least she thinks that was the brand name. What Turner is sure of is that she and her friends ended up lying under blankets in her backyard and listening to The Dark Side of the Moon, “incapable of doing anything other than talking about how stoned we were.”
At the beginning of California’s first pandemic lockdown in March, Turner was working eighteen hours a day to keep the restaurant afloat for what would become months of takeout- and delivery-only business. Wound tight with worry over not only the usual stuff like equipment and food costs but also the very future of her industry, she took to uncoiling in the evening with a couple glasses of wine. But for Turner, consecutive days of drinking alcohol tanked her productivity and led to depression, so at some point, she opened a can of Cann instead. The blood-orange-cardamom “social tonic,” as its founders call it, contains only two milligrams of THC, which achieved for Turner the state of mind those two glasses of wine would. Come her 6:00 a.m. alarm, though, there was no hangover to nurse.
A few weeks later, Turner brought a four-pack of lemon-lavender Cann to a small, distanced gathering. “I was a little chattier and some of my stress had melted off,” she says. “I was less concerned with the broken oven at the café, and I could be more engaging and present in the moment.”
Apparently, there are a lot of Kat Turners out there. Beverages are the fastest-growing segment of the cannabis industry, according to BDS Analytics and New Frontier Data, and out of the people who both consume cannabis and drink alcohol, nearly half prefer the weed. These customers—exactly whom the makers of Cann, SHOKi, Calexo, Wunder, House of Saka, and Artet, among other new, nonalcoholic, low-dose, THC-infused beverage brands, are targeting—seek a mild buzz but want to reduce their alcohol intake, and sugary sodas packed in Scooby-Doo-like bottles won’t cut it. Perhaps you’re one of those people.
Perhaps I’m one of those people? “The fastest-growing consumer group is the canna-curious female, age thirty-five to fifty-five,” says Tracey Mason, CEO of House of Saka. This is a group for whom, Mason says, smoking might feel stigma-laden, and whose members are intimidated by the idea of stepping into a dispensary and trying to keep up with the budtender. Beverages are a more familiar format. Plus, as Mason puts it, in the middle of the worst pandemic in the country’s history—from a disease that affects your respiratory system—“do you really want to be rocking a vape?”
Each serving of House of Saka’s pink or white nonalcoholic wine contains THC and a single milligram of CBD, which some makers claim helps reduce unwanted effects of THC, such as anxiety and paranoia. (Scientific studies are inconclusive but promising on that claim.) After sipping both the pink and the white, I can vouch for the lifted mood—like Turner, I was less concerned with whatever issues had cropped up during my workday, though I felt more sluggish than chatty—but whereas the white was definitely winelike, the pink just tasted like juice. But “the industry is moving so fast,” says Mason, “that every time we produce, the emulsion technology gets better and better.”
That’s the key word for all of these brands: emulsion. Or rather, nanoemulsion. Oil, cannabis extract’s main form, doesn’t mix with water, and it takes some doing to marry them happily so that you end up with a palatable beverage. In fact, entire companies are devoted to the endeavor. House of Saka purchases its emulsions from one called Vertosa, which has become a force in cannabis-infused nanotechnology. Vertosa CEO Ben Larson says that since April, the company has increased its monthly production of cannabis-infused beverages fivefold.
While the FDA, USDA, and academia may define nanoemulsions differently, the point is that the cannabis-oil-infused droplets are minuscule—about ten times smaller in diameter than technologies of the past allowed for, says Larson. In other words, the THC can disperse evenly throughout your beverage, leading to a better mouthfeel than that of the weed drinks of yore, which tended to separate and leave an oily film on your lips.
“It also means it can hit you faster,” says Larson’s partner Harold Han, wearing scrubs and a hairnet in Vertosa’s new lab two hours east of Toronto. To avoid getting geeky, I’ll paraphrase what Han, who has a Ph.D. in organic and surface chemistry, told me: Nanoemulsion means, perhaps counterintuitively, increased overall surface area of the cannabis-infused droplets, which means faster absorption, which means you’ll likely feel THC’s effects within fifteen minutes as opposed to an hour and a half. You’ll feel more like you’re in control of your high.
This more refined category of THC drinks has been visible for a few years. The IPA-inspired Hi-Fi Hops, launched by Lagunitas in 2018, was one of the first to use nanotechnology, followed a year later by Tinley, which was founded in 2015 as a hemp drink company and now makes alcohol-free, cannabis-infused “spirits” and bottled mixed drinks. Both were definitely headline-making steps forward from Soda Pot, but they were met with confusion: Do these drinks have booze and weed in them? Wait—is that okay? There’s now more clarity about what these beverages are (infused with low doses of THC, sessionable) and what they aren’t (alcoholic, a gateway to the dark side of the moon), and the technological improvements of the past few years especially have made more room for nuance in the category.
Half of the drinks in this new class are, like Cann, sodas, though their makers don’t call them that. “It’s just a Calexo, baby,” says Brandon Andrew with a wink from his home in Los Angeles. One of the three founders of Calexo, which he thinks of as a marriage between soda, Champagne, and beer because of its “sparkling, refreshing, upbeat brightness,” Andrew didn’t try cannabis until he was thirty-four years old. Diagnosing him with a rare form of eye cancer that’s linked with compromised liver function, doctors told Andrew he could no longer consume alcohol, but the longtime bartender loved the drinking culture. “It’s so much about how and who I’ve come to be,” he says. Calexo, at ten milligrams of THC per serving, is on the higher end of the spectrum. The rest of the drinks in this category clock in between two and five milligrams. For context, an experienced cannabis user might require, say, twenty or thirty milligrams in order to really feel something, though as anyone who’s gotten stoned can tell you, tolerance varies greatly.
The origin story behind Wunder, which launched in July, is slightly different. Alexi Chialtas was leaning too heavily on alcohol to deal with the stress of working for Zynga, a gaming technology company that was a first darling of Silicon Valley. “It was a rocket ship,” he says. So where was the alcohol alternative? Where was a beverage he could enjoy in a social setting that would give him a light buzz but still allow him to tend to his fatherly duties in the morning? Wunder comes in blood-orange, watermelon, and lemon-ginger flavors and contains a mixture of three cannabinoids: CBD, THC, and delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, a sibling of THC. “Delta-8 gives you that body relaxation that alcohol does,” says Chialtas. This is what many believe is the future of cannabis beverages: Brands could leverage various compounds in the plant in addition to CBD and THC. Instead of a drink’s identity being communicated through branding and flavor alone, there could be a third element: a unique high.
All these brands are betting enough people will want to drink weed—even if it tastes less like, well, weed—for this somewhat niche category to really take off. Big Alcohol is buying into cannabis companies, too. When it comes to nationwide legalization, they all believe it’s just a matter of when.
“New York has such a vibrant underground scene,” says SHOKi Beverages CEO Tiffany Yarde. “There are these upscale, private dinners [with THC-beverage options]. That’s what gets me excited about what’s to come—and it has nothing to do with trying to put people behind bars.” Yarde, whose family emigrated from Barbados in the seventies, will have two flavors of her THC-infused cocktail mixers on California dispensary shelves soon: passionfruit and mint. Pineapple and a spiced hibiscus blend, her grandmother’s recipe, will be released in early 2021. “I want you to be able to enjoy your cannabis at a posh rooftop bar and not feel ashamed. I want to challenge the idea of what a ‘normal’ drinking experience should be.”
That “normal” is also questioned by Xander Shepherd and his cousin Zachary Spohler, who founded Artet, a nonalcoholic, Italian-style aperitif inspired by Aperol. “We want to bring this experience into moments that have been traditionally owned by alcohol but which alcohol has no intrinsic ownership of,” says Shepherd. Artet comes in a navy bottle with an abstract, Matisse-meets-Miró design on it and is infused, like most, with both THC and CBD. It is sophisticated, it gives you a warm feeling, and it isn’t weedy. As Spohler says, “It doesn’t have to always be about booze.”
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