Charcoal Cocktails: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful
Activated charcoal makes for a novel drink, if not a magical health elixir
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This summer, charcoal isn’t just for grilling. In the past couple years, companies have started adding activated charcoal to drinks like lemonade (the word “cleanse” made many appearances). This year, it’s being added to cocktails, too, and some chefs are even incorporating charcoal into foods. In May, Olivella, in North Bergen, New Jersey, started offering pizza, pasta, and fresh mozzarella infused with flecks of activated charcoal, sending out a press release that claimed it was the first charcoal-infused pizza place in the country.
To be clear, “you can’t grab a Kingsford briquette from your last camping trip, crush it into powder, and use it,” says Conner Barrett, a bartender at Mountain Shadows in Paradise Valley, Arizona. “Mixologists use a specific kind that you can find at your local health food or vitamin store that generally comes in capsule form.” Known as activated charcoal, this digestive aid is sometimes administered to combat accidental poisonings. (If your dog ate, say, a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, the emergency vet probably charged you $800 for activated charcoal. Ask me how I know.)
Salvatore Olivella, the chef at Olivella, insists that activated charcoal can aid human digestion, reducing gas and bloating. And some mixologists swear that charcoal, which can be a powerful filter for dirty water, may reduce the amount of “toxins” your body absorbs when you drink. That claim, however, doesn’t pass the critical-thinking test for Stevie Smith, a D.C.-based registered dietitian and Ironman athlete. She’s generally skeptical of anything that claims to detox our bodies. “Our kidneys and livers do a good job of this already,” says Smith.
Of course, most of us are probably not drinking to our health when we order a charcoal cocktail. What’s the appeal? “There are no real flavor benefits to it,” says Josh Seaburg, chief mixologist for three restaurants in Norfolk, Virginia’s newly opened hotel, the Main. It’s tasteless and, if incorporated properly—usually by emulsifying it in simple syrup—has no texture. The only real benefit is the midnight-black hue it imparts, which, Seaburg admits, is pretty cool. But charcoal isn’t the only way to get a goth-appropriate cocktail. Seaburg is experimenting with organic baking dyes and black sesame, both of which deliver all the darkness your angst-filled soul desires.
You can still safely experiment with activated-charcoal cocktails at home. Just make sure you aren’t taking any medications—charcoal can block absorption—and have only one or two servings. And don’t expect it to keep your hangover at bay or cleanse your toxin-riddled organs.
Black Sand Beach
This recipe, courtesy of Trader Vic’s, was inspired by the black-sand beach at Punalu’u in Hawaii. To make sure it only looks like the beach—and isn’t gritty—thoroughly mix the charcoal with the simple syrup before blending it into the other ingredients.
- 3/4 ounce rock candy syrup
- Dash of activated charcoal
- Squeeze of fresh lime
- 1 1/2 ounce pineapple juice
- 2 ounces coconut rum
- 1/2 ounce Bacardi 151 rum
Mix the syrup with the activated charcoal, starting with just a quarter of a tablet; add more if you want the cocktail to be darker. Once the charcoal is thoroughly dissolved, mix all ingredients together in a shaker and strain.
Constructed by the booze aficionados at Park City’s Alpine Distilling, this straightforward cocktail is exactly what you want after a day spent mountain biking or hiking in the Uintas.
- 1 teaspoon charcoal powder
- 1 1/2 ounce Traveler’s Rest 88 whiskey
- 1 1/2 ounce Lafayette bourbon
- Dash of Bitter’s Lab Habañero Lime
- Crushed ice
Mix charcoal powder with whiskey and bourbon to dissolve. Add ice and bitters and shake to chill. Prepare a glass with crushed ice, and pour your mixed spirit over the ice to serve.
This drink doesn’t exist on a menu at the Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, because mixologist Zachary Blair recently ditched all menus and now interviews each guest about their likes and dislikes before crafting a personalized cocktail. Blair says guests recently have been mentioning charcoal cocktails, so he’s been playing with the ingredient. This fruity-smoky mix is one of his favorite iterations.
- 2 ounces charcoal-activated Mezcal (Mix 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of charcoal with Mezcal until the charcoal is completely dissolved.)
- 1/2 ounce lime juice
- 1/2 ounce vanilla syrup
- 2 ounces pineapple juice
- Dash habañero shrub
Fill a shaker with ice. Add all the ingredients to the shaker, shake well, and double strain the mixture into a coupe.