As the legalization of marijuana continues across the U.S., spirits producers are seeking ways to get on board. Their efforts mirror the rise in cannabis-infused beer and the ongoing interest in wine and weed.
Yet, the intersection with cannabis can be particularly confusing for those who love spirits and cocktails, since there’s everything from marijuana-inspired bottlings to drinks infused with CBD, a cannabis derivative.
“It’s the Wild West out there,” says Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits, based in Evanston, Illinois. He’s also an investor in Sterling Beach, a cannabis investment fund. Such experimentation may be exciting, but grandiose claims in the budding industry often amount to little more than smoke and mirrors. He advises a “buyer beware” approach.
“You have to be careful and get what you think you’re getting,” says Hletko.
What follows is a thumbnail guide to help the canna-curious untangle spirits and cocktails made with or inspired by cannabis. Since many offerings are only available in local markets, like CBD cocktails or small-batch spirits with limited distribution, this is simply a jumping-off point for exploration.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the chemical with psychoactive properties that produces marijuana’s signature “high.” It’s primarily found in the buds and flowers of the female cannabis plant, though it’s also present at reduced levels in the larger fan leaves. Trace amounts of THC may also be found in in the stem, roots, seeds and nodes.
You won’t find THC in any commercial spirits bottlings made in the U.S. However, in states where it’s legal to do so, THC may be added to spirits or cocktails after purchase.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is extracted from the leaves, flowers and stalks of cannabis plants. It doesn’t produce an intoxicating high, although many claim it reduces pain and inflammation, and produces a feeling of calmness among other health benefits. CBD has been widely used in commercial non-alcoholic beverages.
By law, like THC, you won’t find CBD in U.S. spirits bottlings currently, although federal guidelines are currently under revision/review. Plenty of bars are now adding CBD oil to cocktails, despite a crackdown by regulators in some areas where it’s still illegal to use in food and drink.
Hemp oil is made from the seeds of hemp plants. These strains of the Cannabis sativa L. are bred to have only trace amounts of THC, defined in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as those containing “not more than 0.3% [THC] on a dry weight basis.” The CSA no longer classifies hemp as marijuana, although the plant’s structure is similar in many ways.
“Hemp’s primary use is for its stalk, which is a very versatile fiber,” says Hletko. “It’s good for ropes, clothes [and] many things, but getting high is not one of them.” The 2018 farm bill legalized hemp and provided incentives to grow the crop, which has led to a surplus of the raw material.
Whether labeled as hemp, “hemp seed” or “cannabis sativa seed,” if you see a weed-adjacent spirit on a shelf in the U.S., it’s 100% certain that hemp is what was used in the bottle. It’s not often advertised for use in cocktails, but hemp oil is widely available at health food stores, which makes it an easy addition for drinks.
High Spirits: A selected list of cannabis-inspired hemp spirits sold in the U.S.
Note: Most of these bottlings have limited distribution.
Colorado High Vodka: Distilled from hemp. Colorado Gold Distillery, Colorado Springs, CO.
Humboldt’s Finest: A cannabis seed-infused vodka. Humboldt Distillery, Humboldt County, CA.
Nirvana Vodka, Nirvana Gin: Both hemp-infused. Fat Dog Spirits, Nirvana, FL.
SoNo 1420: The lineup includes a “hemped rye” and Bourbon-like spirit, each made with a mash bill of rye, corn and hemp seed. The producer also crafts gins that include hemp as a botanical. SoNo 1420 American Craft Distillers, South Norwalk, CT.
If you travel outside of the U.S., you may spot some of the following bottles
Kush Cognac (the Netherlands)
Myrcene Hemp Gin (The Cannabis Co., Australia)
Left Coast Hemp Vodka (Victoria Distillers, British Columbia, Canada)
Primo Hemp Vodka (Mary Jane, Ontario, Canada)
Shotka cannabis-flavored vodka (Marie Brizard Wine & Spirits, France/Spain)