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Bartenders discovered a few years ago that activated charcoal, an ingredient that can be found in gourmet and health-food stores, would allow them to serve customers something unique – and highly Instagrammable: a drink that’s not merely black, but a deep, opaque black, like the void of space.

Certain cocktail ingredients such as charcoal and quinine present unique health risks.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Trevor Kallies, bar and beverage director of the Vancouver-based Donnelly Group of restaurants, caught wind of the trend and created a special charcoal-black cocktail for the annual Oscar-viewing night at Cinema Public House.

Now he’s one of many bartenders who are having second thoughts about serving charcoal in cocktails. While it is legal to use as a food colouring in Canada, its absorptive properties can render certain medications ineffective. “I just didn’t realize the potential for risk,” Kallies says.

Other ingredients besides charcoal have found their way into the repertoire of some experimental bartenders despite the negative health effects they can have. As a new ingredient-safety website warns, quinine, for example, an essential ingredient in tonic water, can cause vertigo, muscle weakness and chronic tinnitus. Eucalyptus oil smells beguiling when added to a martini, but if you’re not careful about dosage, it can lead to nausea, diarrhea and feelings of suffocation. And while liquid nitrogen can make a drink boil and bubble like a witch’s cauldron, a young Englishwoman had to have her stomach removed in 2012 after a bar served it to her in a shot along with Jagermeister.

How did mixed drinks become so fraught? Bar-goers have come to expect high-end establishments to dazzle and delight them with new and unexpected flavours. To cater to the demand, bartenders create unique, made-in-house ingredients, such as flavoured syrups, custom cocktail bitters and infusions, which involve adding one or more ingredients to an existing spirit to change the colour and/or flavour. If you spot rhubarb-infused gin or bacon vodka on a cocktail menu, the spirit was likely concocted by the bar staff themselves. The problem is that sometimes bartenders and patrons have no idea about the risks.

“A lot of times bartenders just want to do something that they heard was cool, or they think it was cool,” says Kallies, who is also president of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association, “but they don’t always take the safety measures that they should.”

San Francisco-based drinks writer and consultant Camper English says it’s time to treat cocktail ingredients and techniques as a serious matter. So in February, he launched cocktailsafe.org, a website that provides science-based advice and warnings for drinkers and drink slingers.

The essence of the problem, English says, is a lack of reliable information about ingredient safety. “It was often pretty hard [for bartenders and customers] to find out the right answer as to whether something would be safe or not, or legal or not. That really was the motivation for creating a central website.”

English studied physics in university, but he’s not really a scientist. He relies on government sources and scholarly articles where possible to populate the entries at cocktailsafe.org. The funding for the website came in the form of a US$30,000 grant from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, a not-for-profit organization connected with Tales of the Cocktail, an annual cocktail conference and festival in New Orleans.

Some of the dozens of ingredients flagged at cocktailsafe.org – such as quinine, tonka beans and calamus – are relatively obscure. If you didn’t know sassafras is considered a carcinogen, you do now.

Tobacco-infused cocktail bitters, on the other hand, are an example of something you might actually find in your local drinking establishment. Earlier this decade, English says, he started seeing “tobacco infusions popping up in cocktails. One bartender I know poisoned himself with a cocktail – he felt very sick, and he said in retrospect he regretted not going to the hospital.”

Darcy O’Neil, a London, Ont., bartender and drinks writer who is also a trained chemist, sounded an early alarm over tobacco infusions in a 2011 blog post. The fundamental problem with using tobacco to flavour drinks, he explains in an interview, is that alcohol absorbs nicotine much more efficiently than the human lung. “Nicotine’s quite toxic,” he says, and it’s easy to imagine how an infusion would deliver a dose many times stronger than a cigarette. The effects, including nausea, can feel like a hangover, but much worse.

As for the legal information at cocktailsafe.org, it mostly pertains to the United States for now, but English says the “next big phase,” if he can secure funding, will involve adding regulations covering other countries, including Canada.

Some cocktail experimentation doesn’t fall under any regulatory regime. Canadian bartenders say provincial liquor inspectors and local restaurant health authorities rarely inquire into cocktail techniques and ingredients. In some jurisdictions, including Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, infusions are permitted, within certain guidelines (for example, B.C. advises licensees that the infusion ingredients should be “spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, candy or other substances intended for human consumption”). In Alberta, however, regulations specifically forbid “adulterating” liquor in this way, and that’s a sore point among some bartenders there.

O’Neil says there’s no evidence that lots of people are getting sick in the country’s cocktail bars (beyond the traditional causes). The vast majority of cocktails aren’t using potentially toxic ingredients, “but every once in a while, somebody fools around with something that’s quite intense.”

Going out for a drink is supposed to be fun, and customers aren’t going to google every drink order to ensure it’s safe. “There isn’t a huge rash of cocktail poisonings,” English says. “I don’t think people should be that worried walking into a cocktail bar that they’re going to find something really terrible for them.” Still, he thinks bartenders should assume most of the responsibility for ensuring cocktails are safe, and for informing customers when there might be a risk.

That said, O’Neil would remind patrons of one dangerous ingredient they’ll encounter in every bar. “Alcohol,” he says, “is a poison at a certain dose.”

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