Be­fore you sip that cock­tail, a few safety warn­ings

Business Standard - - WORLD - ROBERT SIMONSON

The phrase “cock­tail safety” may sound like an oxy­moron, or the punch line of a bar­room joke. Af­ter all, we’re talk­ing about al­co­hol, and a brandy Alexan­der is hardly as harm­less as a smoothie.

But as mod­ern bar­tenders dig into their cock­tail chem­istry sets for new tech­niques and ar­cane in­gre­di­ents, Cam­per English, a drinks writer in San Fran­cisco, de­cided it was time to cre­ate a web­site to head off po­ten­tial dis­as­ter: Cock­tailSafe.org.

“Bar­tenders to­day are ob­sessed with ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, which I think is for the best,” Mr. English said. “But it’s of­ten con­fus­ing as to what is safe and what is le­gal to use in bev­er­ages.”

There are a sur­pris­ing num­ber of cock­tail com­po­nents and pro­ce­dures to be wor­ried about. The web­site’s in­dex lists more than 60, in­clud­ing fat-wash­ing, in which a spirit is mixed with the oils of a solid, such as ba­con or nuts, then frozen; the fat sep­a­rates and is scraped away, leav­ing its flavour be­hind. “Bo­tulism is a con­cern,” Mr. English said.

Older tiki mugs may have lead in the glaze. Moscow mule mugs can leach cop­per into a drink. Not all kinds of wood are safe for mak­ing bar­rel-aged cock­tails. Home­made tonic syrups can cause cin­chon­ism, a health con­di­tion re­lated to in­gest­ing too much qui­nine. (Symp­toms in­clude ver­tigo, mus­cle weak­ness and tin­ni­tus.)

Some in­gre­di­ents can trig­ger al­ler­gies. Oth­ers are not only po­ten­tially haz­ardous to use, but also banned by fed­eral reg­u­la­tion, like tonka beans or cala­mus, an herb.

It’s enough to make you switch to beer.

The web­site is pri­mar­ily in­tended for bar­tenders, who since the early days of the cur­rent cock­tail re­vival have reached for un­ortho­dox in­gre­di­ents to bring new flavours — as well as pub­lic and me­dia at­ten­tion — to their drinks. This has of­ten led to ex­cit­ing and de­li­cious drinks, but it can also be dan­ger­ous, be­cause most bar­tenders may not fully un­der­stand the in­gre­di­ents they’re us­ing.

“They see other bar­tenders mak­ing home­made syrups and tobacco bit­ters, and make the as­sump­tion that that’s safe,” Mr. English said.

This isn’t the first gen­er­a­tion of bar­tenders to take chances. Many prePro­hi­bi­tion cock­tail books in­cluded recipes for home­made cor­dials and spir­its that called for ques­tion­able in­gre­di­ents like peach ker­nels, cala­mus root, am­mo­nia and tur­pen­tine.

While com­pil­ing the site, Mr. English con­sulted ar­ti­cles on PubMed, a data­base main­tained by the United States Na­tional Li­brary of Medicine at the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health; the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion web­site; the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health; and a few cock­tail-lov­ing doc­tors.

The site also of­fers ad­vice, and al­ter­na­tives to trou­ble­some in­gre­di­ents like ac­ti­vated char­coal, which is used to darken a drink, but can re­duce the ef­fec­tive­ness of some med­i­ca­tions. Mr. English sug­gests sub­sti­tut­ing black food colour­ing, ground black se­same seeds or black cur­rants.

Mr. English re­mem­bers the mo­ment in 2015 he be­gan to think deeply about cock­tail safety: He read a news ar­ti­cle about a young wo­man in Lan­caster, Eng­land, who had un­der­gone emer­gency surgery to re­move her stom­ach. The cul­prit was a drink with Jäger­meis­ter that con­tained liq­uid ni­tro­gen.

So far, Mr. English has been lucky in his own drink­ing. “Any poi­son­ing, I’ve done to my­self,” he said.

Last year, he took his con­cerns to Tales of the Cock­tail, an an­nual con­ven­tion held in New Or­leans, and ap­plied for a grant to help build the web­site. “I knew a cock­tail safety web­site was some­thing that needed to ex­ist, and I wouldn’t be able to de­vote the time and en­ergy to it with­out some kind of in­come com­ing in,” he said. The con­ven­tion’s foun­da­tion gave him $32,000.

Mr. English is aware that the web­site will be viewed by some bar pro­fes­sion­als not as a boon, but as a wet blan­ket.

“One big prob­lem about be­ing vo­cal about cock­tail safety is push­back,” he said. “Bar­tenders believe you’re try­ing to take this cool thing away from them.”

A new web­site fo­cused on cock­tail safety is pri­mar­ily in­tended for bar­tenders, who since the early days of the cur­rent cock­tail re­vival have reached for un­ortho­dox in­gre­di­ents to bring new flavours to their drinks

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