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Raising the bar
'Cocktail whisperer' Warren Bobrow explains why he thinks cannabis-infused cocktails won't be just a novelty
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, August 4, 2018 – Page P9

Before he became known as the "cocktail whisperer," Warren Bobrow worked in private banking. An affinity for sophisticated solutions led him to became an authority on the mixed drinks, and he's since parlayed a lifelong enthusiasm for marijuana into yet another career as cannabis-cocktail guru. Whether he's at SXSW giving talks about disrupting the cannabis kitchen, touring food and drink shows dispensing tips or fielding questions from his perch at Forbes magazine, the cannabis alchemist (and trained chef and bartender) is at the vanguard of the emerging medicated mixology field.

"From a purely culinary standpoint," Bobrow, 57, says in his groundbreaking book Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics, "the flavours inherent to cannabis can be incredibly intriguing: they might be reminiscent of citrus fruits, tropical fruits, pine needles or menthol." Using extracts from various strains, with precise dosage and inventive recipes for diverse, aroma-driven cocktails, Cannabis Cocktails has become an indispensable field guide. Here, Bobrow tells me how cannabis is the biggest boon to cocktail culture since the end of Prohibition.

Is Cannabis Cocktails on a continuum with your first book, Apothecary Cocktails, in that it's an exploration of historic folk remedies and tonics with curative properties.

They're intertwined. As a kid, I was surrounded by pharmaceuticals because my grandfather was in the patent pharmaceutical business and I was always intrigued by folk healing and old country methods.

Look at Peychaud's Bitters, for example, or angostura that goes back to the 1800s and was invented for dysentery. It's not a pleasant subject, but every time you drink a Manhattan, you should think of all the people who died of terrible stomach disorders before Angostura was invented. I love to do that. I take it to the next level, infusing angostura with THC and making people taste things differently, and using cannabis not necessarily as a consciousness-altering drug but as a flavour element.

Yet, its taste is not something usually sought out. Hasn't the culinary goal often been camouflage?

I think cannabis possesses terroir just like fine wine. It's an acquired taste, as with bitters. But I also come out of the wine business, so I take a wine perspective - my tasting notes are tinged with the same professional descriptors. When I create cocktails I am creating them with food and entertaining in mind, not for Weekend at Bernie's where everyone gets destroyed. It's tasty little cocktails that happen to be beautifully medicated.

How has the craft-cocktail craze dovetailed to cannabis?

I was out in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago and that's a great read on what's happening right now: People are smoking it on the street less, but enjoying it more. They're taking it home and enjoying the art of relaxation, the art of using cannabis as we use a glass of wine at the end of the day. Or to invigorate oneself first thing in the morning, motivated with sativa [a cannabis strain] for really clear, crisp thought. I think it's really important to destigmatize it to the point where you could use it interchangeably the way you would, say, a cup of coffee or even a Bloody Mary in the afternoon.

It still seems a contradiction to celebrate cannabis while also hiding it.

Another reason I wrote the book is so I could make myself a Vietnamese iced coffee with THC-infused condensed milk - delicious, and no alcohol in it - and nobody would be any the wiser. That's the key, right there. Because there is still the stigma. The art of Cannabis Cocktails is being able to take your medicine and nobody assuming that if you're smoking grass in the middle of the afternoon you must therefore be a stoner.

Instead, you can drink a beautiful craft cocktail where it just happens that the rhum agricole has been infused with THC and no one has to know it. It's non-antagonistic.

How has making the cocktails gotten more accessible since you were researching and writing just a few years ago? I'm thinking in particular of the various decarboxylation methods [the heating process allows the user to feel the psychoactive effects] you outline, including one requiring a heat-safe turkey-roasting bag.

Consumer technology to do it correctly didn't exist before my book came along and I had a responsibility to teach people in the book about how to do it safely. Because I'm a trained chef who started at the bottom and worked my way up, I wanted individuals to know how to do things from scratch. Like I was trained to be a saucier - and you don't open up a jar of Swiss Knorr and say you're making charentes sauce; it's nice to learn how to roast bones or to make demi-glace. The three methods I originally give are effective enough to get people started. But fast-forward three years and I don't do things that way anymore; the technology has developed and changed.

What do you recommend now instead?

I use the Ardent Lift, a handheld decarboxylator. It's micro-processor-controlled with a heat-jacketed kettle inside that's no bigger than a thermos; put in an ounce and an hour later you have cannabis with 100-percent bioavailability [availability for absorption], every single time, with consistent and calculable results. From there you can take it and infuse it into anything from simple syrups to raw honey to craft liquors, even - and I know the Scots would be horrified - even scotch whisky. But only blended ones, because they're already a rough bunch.

Do you worry about cannabis cocktails being talked about as a novelty flavour trend, like pumpkin spice?

I want them to be! Why shouldn't they!?

I'm all about flavour. I'm a tastemaker.

You'll never see a pumpkin-spice cocktail from me, but you'll see something such as mole and mezcal that's infused with THC, maybe finished up with a puff of mole bitters that are spicy, zippy and wake up your palate. You can go the route of micro-dosing, taking cannabis more for maintenance and wellness than the more recreational side I grew up with. Or you can do it the other way around. My personal path is from healing - and healing means you take a full dose. If you're in pain and need to quell that, my drinks are a great place to start because they are not weak.

What do you foresee for the category generally?

I would like to see North Americans, and people anywhere there is cocktail culture, drink less sweetly. Less sugar, more savoury. There are so many diabetics now because of corn sugar; it's important to look at complex sugars. You will not see in my books any reference to regular sugar - I always use Demerara or raw honey.

It's as important to understand the provenance of the other ingredients as the cannabis. THC is great for building a drink that's not antagonistic in nature, but it also lends itself incredibly well to craft cocktails from a flavour standpoint. When you drink from a deliciously made, lovely-to-look-at craft cocktail, no one has to know your business. And that ultimately is why I wrote the book. It's so important in this day and age, it's so hard with first impressions. And I wanted to make it a little less difficult to succeed in life if you like cannabis.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Associated Graphic

Warren Bobrow's book Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics includes recipes for marijuana-infused beverages such as the Hoochie Coochie Man, top left, and the Ardent Dreamer, top right.

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