Cannabis cocktails - the latest New York trend.

Cannabis cocktails - the latest New York trend.
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New York Trend: Cannabis Cocktails

Food & Beverage

The US state of New York recently legalised cannabis for recreational use. Within a very short time this has become a huge market that politicians, beverage producers and chefs have all tapped into.

"Put CBD in your coffee", a sign in front of Bubby's urges passers-by. For 30 years, the restaurant on the corner of Hudson and North Moore Street in New York's Tribeca district has been serving US classics such as pancakes, buttermilk biscuits, burgers and fried chicken crispy southern style. CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol and it is derived from the hemp plant which is a member of the Cannabis genus.

Over the years, the neighbourhood has developed from an artists' corner to a high-priced residential area with many young families. Bubby's, with its simple but delicious comfort food menu has remained a family restaurant, a popular New York brunch institution. What is new, however, is "Azuca", the CBD mix that Bubby's owner and chef, Ron Silver, created himself - and with which he has taken the term comfort food to a whole new level. 

Anyone who orders CBD coffee or tea with their pancakes gets a packet of CBD sugar mix to go with it. Condition: the guest must be at least 21 years old. Cost: nine dollars. Four dollars for a cup of typically weak American filter coffee, five dollars for Azuca, the house-style CBD mix (derived from the Spanish word Azúcar for sugar).

There is no need to be afraid of a cannabis induced trip, because CBD is a part of the hemp plant that, unlike THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), is not psychoactive and thus does not result in a high. It is more about relaxing – and Ron's helps you relax quicker than most. 

Ron Silver has been working on his Azuca mix in the lab for six years. His house mix is now supposed to work faster than similar mixtures, namely within ten minutes and not after half an hour as elsewhere. "It's easy to explain and hard to make: Cannabis drinks are very complicated because the thick oil doesn't mix easily with liquid," explains 58-year-old Silver. The chef is self-taught; in addition to his restaurant in New York, he has six others in Japan.

Patent pioneer

His innovative process, for which he has applied for a patent, encapsulates cannabinoid molecules, makes them water-soluble and results in Azuca having no hemp taste or smell. A card at the table indicates that a packet of CBD sugar contains exactly 25 milligrams of CBD and around nine calories. Michelle, a broker from Manhattan, tries coffee with cannabis for the first time that afternoon and is disappointed, "Well, I don't feel anything." But it's Sunday and the stress for her doesn't start again until Monday. Maybe that's the reason...

A few years previously, Bubby's offered a drinks menu with infused CBD, explains waiter Carlos. It was very popular, for example, Watermelon Margarita with a shot of CBD. But the health authorities put a spanner in the works for the restaurateurs and bars. "They said they first had to analyse the effect in food and drinks," the waiter explains. That's why guests now have to mix their own CBD sugar into their drinks.

The state of New York only legalised cannabis for recreational use in April 2021 - nevertheless, it is hoping for additional tax revenues of $350 million per year in the future. It remains the case that restaurants and bars are not allowed to mix anything like this into food and drinks, however, if guests were to add Azuca themselves, then that is legal.

Online Trading is booming

Other US states are not so squeamish. In California, where cannabis was legalised in 2016, several companies offer breakfast granola, chocolate, drinks such as Seltzer water or gummy bears with THC and/or CBD. This west coast state requires sales of cannabis products to be licenced so sales are made through third parties with the necessary paperwork. The cannabis internet shop Ona Life was one of the first to start. 

"On average, customers spend $125 per order with us today, and delivery is done by courier," says Veronica Brooks, head of cannabis concierge at Ona Life. She not only takes the orders, but also educates customers about the products. The bestseller within their food division are gummies, Midnight Blueberry gummies to be exact. Costing USD20 they purportedly help you sleep better. These little bedtime treats contain five milligrams of THC and one milligram of CBD per piece.

When it comes to drinks, Saka Pink sells best, a non-alcoholic rosé made from Pinot Noir grapes with THC and CBD from the House of Saka, which already has a real fan club, according to Veronica. House of Saka is a relatively new wine business based in Napa Valley and founded in 2018.

A good hour by car from the coastal metropolis of San Francisco, Napa valley is home to around 400 wineries. It has made Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay famous throughout the US like no other growing region. The name House of Saka comes from the legend of courageous, mystical and fierce female warriors who ruled the land and for whom the cannabis plant was at the centre of their spiritual and ritual rites of passage - fitting for a company that is not only run by women but primarily produces non-alcoholic cannabis enhanced drinks aimed at women aged between 25 and 55.

In addition to their Saka Pink - millennials in the US also have a preference for rosé - the ladies also produce alcohol-free Saka White made from Chardonnay and, most recently, a Mimosa Sparkling drink.

They want to play in the luxury category with their products; they attach great importance to correspondingly artistically designed labels without any psychedelic references, explains Tracey Mason, co-founder and CEO of House of Saka. She wants to open up a completely new field in the cannabis sector. In contrast to smoking, the drinks should also appeal to a new clientele, be more socially acceptable than joints and not give off the typical intense sweet smell.

Co-founders of House of Saka, Cynthia Salarizadeh (left) with expertise in the cannabis business and Tracey Mason (right) with experience in the wine-trade.
Photo provided
Co-founders of House of Saka, Cynthia Salarizadeh (left) with expertise in the cannabis business and Tracey Mason (right) with experience in the wine-trade.

Covid Boosts Turnover

The pandemic has been a sales booster for the young company, which launched its first alcohol-free wine in 2019. "Absolutely," says Tracey happily. "People have been drinking more in general. But with our products, unlike alcoholic drinks, you can relax with a fraction of the calories and without getting a hangover or fearing the negative effects on your liver and skin."

Tracey Mason is a veteran of the wine industry. She has worked for spirits giants Diageo and Foster's Wine Estates (now Treasury Wine Estates, one of the largest wine producers and retailers), among others. Her connections with top Napa Valley winemakers help when it comes to getting the best grapes.

Initially, the production process is like that of non-alcoholic beer. "First, we produce wine normally, then we remove the alcohol and add our THC-CBD mix," the wine expert explains. "Sometimes we are asked why we don't just use grape juice, but we wouldn't get the complexity of the taste of the wine. We want to create a product that is as close to wine as possible. On the other hand, there is little taste to the cannabis mix." Tracey says.

The women have just increased the THC content of their products considerably and pricing has been adjusted from $25 to $40 per bottle. "That's what consumers want," says Tracey. She points to California, where most drinks in the sector contained ten miligrams of THC per glass. Saka Pink is still below that with eight milligrams of THC and one milligram of CBD per glass. But how high do you really get from it? "Let's just say it brightens your mood," says Tracey.

Addition specialists are watching the trend with some concern. "Five to six percent THC in a glass of wine, that's as much as in a joint in the past. But it is not addictive. Key drugs are still alcohol and nicotine, not cannabis products," says Andreas Prenn, an Austrian addiction prevention specialist. Nevertheless, he fears, "It makes the whole thing socially acceptable."

Not only Bubby's boss, Ron Silver, but also the House of Saka use special technology to make the cannabis mix work faster. "The nano-motion technology we use breaks down cannabis into microscopic particles. These are not processed through the liver, but through the stomach and large intestine," Tracey explains. This means you feel the effect within five to 15 minutes. She sees this as a health advantage. "This way, you can better control how much THC you ingest. If cannabis is contained in food, for example, it can take an hour and a half before you feel anything. Many people consume more than they would like later," says Saka co-head Tracey Mason.

For the addiction expert Andreas Prenn, however, these highly marketed drinks are anything but pleasurable, "Alcohol is removed from the drink and CBD and THC are added, we're not talking about a natural product. I'd rather drink a glass of red wine. And if you want, you can smoke a joint with it - if it's allowed."

Milestone legalisation

The legalisation of cannabis as a stimulant is spreading in the US, at the end of March 2021, the state of New York gave its okay, thus following the example of 14 other states and the capital district of Washington.

By law, New York allows adults over 21 to possess up to 85 grams of cannabis and also to grow cannabis plants for their own consumption to a certain extent. The use of the drug for medical purposes is to be expanded. Former governor Andrew Cuomo, whose Democrats have a clear majority in both chambers of parliament, spoke of a "milestone".

For too long, cannabis prohibition had "disproportionately affected" the non-white population, who were often subject to heavy prison sentences for violating cannabis prohibition. New York not only hopes to raise USD350 million a year in tax revenue, it is also expecting to create thousands of new jobs.

Big Business

Not only small start-ups, but also large breweries and liquor companies in the US are increasingly discovering cannabis for themselves. The pioneer was Constellation Brands. The US beverage giant, which also makes and sells Corona beer, invested in the Canadian company Canopy Growth back in 2017 - a shrewd move.

Canopy Growth is now the world's largest medical cannabis company. Its mixed drink "Quatreau" has been the top seller of CBD mixed drinks in Canada since its launch last year, and demand has risen sharply, especially during the pandemic.

Constellation Brands now owns 40% of Canopy Growth. Quatreau Sparkling Water is sold in four flavours: cucumber/mint, passion fruit/guava, both with 20 milligrams of CBD per 355ml can, and ginger/lime and blueberry/açai, with 2mg CBD and 2mg of THC per can - all without sugar. The white cans are available for USD4 online and they are hoping it will be sold through shops later in the year.

There has been a move to market and sell cannabis products "functionally". This is because drinks with THC and CBD additives could help people to cope with stress and achieve peace and well-being. However, whilst legalisation means that recreational users are no longer prosecuted, there is no doubt that governments will look to raise revenues through tax. And that is because cannabis remains a drug. The Canadian Government health warning that Quatreau publish on-line clearly states; 

  • WARNING: Frequent and prolonged use of cannabis containing THC can contribute to mental health problems over time. Daily or near-daily use increases the risk of dependence and may bring on or worsen disorders related to anxiety and depression. 
  • WARNING: Adolescents and young adults are at greater risk of harms from cannabis. Daily or near-daily use over a prolonged period of time can harm brain development and function.
Perhaps it is wise to be cautious.

Angelika Ahrens
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