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Tobacco Returns To The Bar, This Time Inside Cocktails

The Step-dad cocktail at Bar Charley in Washington, D.C., features house-made tobacco bitters.
Courtesy of Leo Schmid
The Step-dad cocktail at Bar Charley in Washington, D.C., features house-made tobacco bitters.

Take a sip of the Oaxacan Fizz at Father's Office in Los Angeles and you'll discover the unmistakable taste of tobacco. That's because this cocktail is sweetened with a small amount of tobacco-infused sugar syrup.

"A lot of people say, 'I only smoke when I drink,'" says chef-owner Sang Yoon. "We say, 'Now you can do both.'"

Mixologists are helping tipplers enjoy tobacco even as smoking bans spread to more than half the states in the U.S. Though some may drink the cocktail in search of a buzz, mixologists say tobacco adds an unexpected flavor profile that pairs well with dark liquors.

Creating the tobacco syrup was a trial and error process for Yoon. "We took a Marlboro Lights cigarette apart and tried doing an infusion, which turned out to be horrible," he says. "We tried chopping up cigars; that tasted horrifying. We tried snuff, which didn't work."

Pipe tobacco was ultimately the winner. "It's much sweeter aromatically and on the palate," he says. And it echoes the smoky elements of the San Juan Del Rio mezcal, which forms the drink's backbone.

Loose pipe tobaccos generally lack many, if not all, of the approximately 600 ingredients which are added to most cigarette tobaccos, including cancer-causing chemicals like tar, carbon monoxide, arsenic and benzene. Though there are plenty of completely additive-free pipe tobaccos on the market, many do include natural and artificial flavorings, sweeteners, and anti-drying agents to extend shelf life. In general, however, pipe tobacco offers mixologists tobacco in its purest form, with the cleanest flavor.

To make his sweetener, Yoon adds four ounces of pipe tobacco to one quart of simple syrup and lets it steep at 170 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours. "We found that when we boiled the solution, it got too aggressive," he says.

But there's no hiding the tobacco. "It burns going down," says Yoon. "There's a little heat; a little peppery-ness at the back of the throat. Although I'm not a smoker, I've been addicted to Nicorette gum, so I know what the buzz feels like. I do get that stupid euphoria when I drink the Oaxacan Fizz."

It's no surprise that it's a polarizing cocktail. "People who smoke cigarettes or pot love it," says Yoon. "People who don't smoke are divided."

Yoon's not alone in tobacco drink experimentation. At PX in Alexandria, Va., Todd Thrasher uses a rotating cast of tobaccos – including pipe tobacco and clove cigarettes – to make a sweet "tea" that goes into his bourbon-based Smoker's Delight.

Gordon Banks, co-owner of Bar Charley in Washington, D.C., created a cocktail that incorporates cedar smoke and a dash of homemade tobacco bitters. It's called the Step-dad "because it smells like alcohol, tobacco and smoke," he says.

It's definitely a sipper, featuring a smooth cognac base, smoky overtones and little bite from a small amount of the herbaceous Italian liqueur cynar. You can taste the tobacco bitters, though the flavor is slightly mellowed by the incorporation of cinnamon, clove and allspice.

There are a few tobacco-y spirits on the market, too, including Ivanabitch's tobacco and menthol-flavored vodkas and Jade Liqueur's Perique Tobacco Liqueur.

These tobacco-laced beverages are a largely modern phenomenon, according to historian Arlene Hirschfelder, author of several books on tobacco, including The Encyclopedia of Smoking and Tobacco. But she notes that as early as 1586, historical documents show that "tobacco was used in potions by Native Americans for medical purposes to treat gastrointestinal problems."

South American shamans drank simple tobacco teas during rituals and for its supposedly magical qualities, according to Iain Gately's Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World. However, the author notes that overindulging in these teas could "induce vomiting, paralysis and, occasionally, death."

That may have been due to the nicotine, which can be lethal in high doses. And it's a hint that the latest experiments may be risky, not unlike those liquid nitrogen cocktails we reported on in 2012.

The problem with tobacco-infused drinks, according to Stan Glantz, a leading researcher on the health effects of tobacco at the University of California-San Francisco, is that you simply have no way of knowing how much nicotine you're getting.

"It's impossible to know what the dosage is since these guys are making this stuff themselves," Glantz tells The Salt. "Don't forget that nicotine was used as insecticide. So this is like putting pesticides – hazardous substances — into drinks."

For the most part, the drinkable tobacco trend is so new that there haven't been any major studies on the overall health effects of orally ingesting tobacco – or nicotine – in liquid form. What you won't get from them, of course, is secondhand smoke, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes has over 7,000 chemicals in it, including approximately 70 that are cancer-causing.

But according to one recent study by researchers at Austria's Karl-Franzens University Graz in the medical journal Archives of Toxicology, a dose of more than 0.5 g liquidized nicotine could harm an adult.

And even low concentrations of nicotine "causes tremor and increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and level of alertness," according to the CDC.

The take-home message from Glantz is that drinking tobacco is not a great way to kick back and relax: "It would be easy to overdose with a nicotine liquid in a drink," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nevin Martell