The last few years have seen an explosion of cocktail menus with all sorts of infusions, “washes”, and molecular manipulation. In addition to the dangerous activated charcoal—and “fat washed”–everything, we’ve also seen a spike in bitters, syrups, tinctures, or spirits infused with tobacco. Tobacco drinks may seem no different than bumming a smoke outside the bar, we’ve got news for you and it’s not pretty: anything infused with tobacco without an incredibly careful process behind it can be very dangerous according to our own Dr. Bill Copen. Plus, it’s illegal to sell these infusions in the U.S.
Nicotine is a toxic substance that can be harmful or even fatal if ingested in sufficient quantity. And, Nicotine is in each and every tobacco leaf. The stimulant is actually a natural pesticide that tobacco plants (and some others!) produce in order to sicken or kill predatory insects or animals that might try to eat them. It just so happens that some human beings enjoy the effect of nicotine when smoked in controlled doses. A little like alcohol, small amounts are enjoyable, but a large dose could kill you.
When you drink a cocktail, you have a good idea about how just how much alcohol you’re consuming. Most drinkers moderate their intake well before the point of poisoning and the body offers some internal alarms like nausea as danger levels near. Unfortunately, this is not true for nicotine. Drinking a tobacco-infused cocktail doesn’t afford the drinker any level of control over how much nicotine they’re actually ingesting (unless you are drinking in a laboratory and your bartender is surrounded by a lot of expensive scientific equipment–hit us up if this is how you drink, we’ll throw on a lab coat and join you). Unlike alcohol, a drinker won’t know if they’ve ingested enough nicotine to make them sick until it’s too late to stop drinking.
Did You Know?
Nicotine levels in tobacco varies greatly depending on the strain of the plant, where it’s grown, how it’s grown, and what part of the plan is harvested. (Fun fact: top leaves have way more nicotine than bottom leaves!) So, the amount of nicotine in tobacco leaves can fall within a HUGE range, from 0.05% to over 5%. Even the nicotine in a single cigarette can vary from about 6mg to a whopping 30mg! (The average in a single cigarette is about 10mg, but the average amount a smoker inhales delivers closer to 1-2mg.)
Soaking tobacco in water or alcohol extracts a far greater percentage of its nicotine vs. smoking. Nicotine is incredibly soluble; it only takes a tablespoon of water (or any alcoholic spirit) to dissolve all of the nicotine in an entire pack fo cigarettes. That effect is what makes this practice so potentially dangerous. If you’re making bitters, a syrup, tincture, or spirit infusion, you must assume that the entire nicotine content of the tobacco used will be transferred to your extraction.
Your body absorbs less nicotine by mass from drinking than it does from smoking, which has been tested in studies. A smoker ingests 80%-90% of the nicotine consumed, and a drinker between 20%-59%. However, the drinker is generally pulling from a match larger pool of nictotine; so, the next consumption by the drinker is still higher more often than not.
Nicotine absorbed by smoking also takes place much faster than drinking. Smoking is almost instant, whereas drinking can take 60-90 minutes for your body to absorb and blood concentrations to peak. So if your tobacco infused cocktail is going to make someone sick, it might not happen until long after they’ve finished their drink, and possibly after they’ve left the bar. Nicotine poisoning also produces a wide variety of symptoms that can easily be confused for the effects of alcohol, so bartender beware.
What About That Liqueur?
Yes. The legendary Ted Breaux does make Jade Perique Tobacco Liqueur, a tobacco liqueur available in limited quantities outside the U.S. But, do you remember when we mentioned “drinking in a laboratory?” Well, that’s Ted. In fact, Jade stresses that their “construction has been meticulously developed and scientifically proven to embody the nuances of this ancient tobacco while excluding harmful qualities associated with the plant.” In short, this is not made in someone’s garage or even behind a bar.
The Bottom Line:
Whether you are a drinker, a bartender, or a manager, you should know that using tobacco in food or beverages is against the law in the United States. If you make, modify, mix, manufacture, fabricate, assemble, process, label, repack, relabel, or import any “tobacco product,” then you are considered a tobacco product “manufacturer” according to the FDA. Obviously, tobacco manufacturing is an extremely tightly regulated industry requiring numerous approvals and licenses–and, no loopholes for cocktail bars.
In addition, there is a moral issue. Do you really want to be responsible for serving someone a carcinogen that is known to be as addictive as heroin (much more addictive than alcohol)?
Also, you could kill someone.
It might seem sexy and add some depth of character, but it’s important to acknowledge that tobacco infusions are incredibly hard to execute with any sort of dosage control, and you are putting your customers and your business, at serious risk.