Using these ingredients? Then your cocktail could be toxic

Get to know the harmful properties of some well-known cocktail ingredients. By Sostene Costantino.

The world of cocktails is in many ways defined by creativity. Bartenders are often some of the most inventive individuals you’ll ever meet, constantly on the lookout for new ingredients or techniques to improve their creations.

However, while creativity might be boundless, reality has its limits, especially when it comes to the safety of cocktail ingredients. For a bartender, the knowledge about what goes inside their creations is as important as the imagination that led to it.

Click through the slideshow for a breakdown of of 12 ingredients that should warrant a great deal of precaution and understanding.

1. Quinine

Quinine – which is a common ingredient in tonic waters and bitter liqueurs – is a compound extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. In her book The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart explains that quinine usage in the beverage industry originated during its time as a medicine against malaria, when people started mixing it with soda water and a bit of sugar to temper its bitter taste.

Quinine levels in tonic waters and other beverages is often strictly regulated by law due to health risks attached to its elevated consumption. For instance, in China, it is listed as a poisonous substance.

Overdose of quinine can lead to cinchonism, a condition which may cause a wide variety of side effects from tinnitus, headaches and nausea to visual disturbances, seizures and hyperventilation.

In his blog Alcademics, journalist Camper English warns of the risk of quinine over consumption in bars, especially when bartenders decide to make their own tonic syrups using cinchona bark. “Homemade tonic waters begin with this tree bark either in chunk or powdered form. The powdered form is particularly hard to strain out of the final beverage, and this could lead to an accidental overdose,” explains Camper. Plus, in The Drunken Botanist, Amy points out that different species of cinchona yields different doses of quinine. This also makes it very difficult to establish the exact quantity in a homemade syrup.

Keeping in mind these dangers, if you want to prepare homemade tonic syrups, Camper recommends to strain the liquid as thoroughly as possible and to make small samples of cocktails featuring this syrup.

2. Eggs

Eggnog, sours, Ramos Gin Fizzes and coffee cocktails are only some of the many drinks that use raw eggs as a cocktail ingredient. However, you might want to take extra caution when dealing with them.

Raw eggs have a risk of transmitting salmonella, a bacterial infection which causes fever, nausea and diarrhoea. Granted, it’s a remote threat as statistically only one egg in 26,000 is contaminated, according to food scientist Patricia Curtis. In particular, elderly people, those undergoing medical treatments, pregnant women and children are more susceptible to food borne illnesses, therefore you should exercise caution if serving them a cocktail containing raw egg, but we doubt you’ll be serving the latter two cocktails anyway!

Cocktailsafe, a website on cocktail safety launched in 2018 by Camper English, recommends to always thoroughly wash every tool or piece of equipment that comes into contact with raw eggs. Also, crack eggs on order rather than pre-batching them to avoid the risk of cross contamination. Finally, try to purchase pasteurised eggs and egg products.

3. Flowers

Bartenders and spirit makers have always used flowers in their craft. What would a classic like the Aviation cocktail be without violets? And even when they are not actively employed as an ingredient, flowers are popular as cocktail garnishes.

However, as we previously explored on DRiNK, safety must be a key aspect when using flowers in a bar. Those which you intend to be used for human consumption must be certified for food use, and be wary of flowers which might have been treated with pesticides, wax sprays and perfumes.

Also, rose, lilac, lavender, pansy, chamomile and hibiscus are some examples of flowers safe to ingest, but many other blossoms – for example azalea, daffodil, hydrangea, ranunculus and lily – not only are inedible but also toxic. In his book Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits, food writer Andrew Schloss points out that “soaking poisonous blooms in alcohol doesn’t make them less toxic.” Take this lesson to heart.

You don’t need to become a fully-fledged botanist to use flowers in a bar, but always be sure of the nature of the petals you put inside or on a cocktail.

4. Essential oils

Essential oils are a compound which is the concentrated essence of the plant, fruit or flower from which they are extracted. Their uses range from aromatherapy and massage therapy to food preparations and medications. It is important to know that not all essentials oils are suitable for bar use.

In the same vein as flowers, you should always make sure that all the essential oils you work with are certified for food use. This is critical as essentials oils are loosely regulated and, in some cases, “it can be hard to know exactly what’s inside the essential oil bottle – what species of plant, what concentration of active ingredient, or whether there are any contaminants,” as the website Poison Control points out.

5. Dry Ice

Dry ice is not a proper ingredient per se, but it is used in cocktails to instantly freeze or cool drinks, or simply for theatrics. This frozen carbon dioxide passes from solid to gas by skipping the liquid state.

However, more important than its chemistry are the precautions you need to take when using it. For starters, dry ice releases toxic gases and causes internal organ damage when ingested – so don’t use it directly inside your drinks. It can also cause frostbite if mishandled with bare hands so use gloves to protect your most important tools – your hands.

Also, Cocktailsafe suggests exercising a great deal of care when storing this substance. Always keep it in a ventilated place to avoid the accumulation of carbon dioxide and never store it in sealed containers, as the gas produced might lead to an explosion.

6. Activated Charcoal

In a previous article, we talked about activated charcoal and its usage in bars to make black drinks, and how there’s more to this substance than just its colouring effect.

Activated charcoal can absorb foreign substances inside our system before they are assimilated into our bloodstream. For this reason, in cases of poisoning or drugs overdose, activated charcoal is used on patients to mitigate the effects of the toxins. Unfortunately, this property does not distinguish between beneficial or harmful substances. Just like it can absorb poisons, activated charcoal can absorb medications, also hindering their benefits.

In a 2017 paper, Dr William Copen states that activated charcoal in a drink could “block the body’s absorption of food nutrients, dietary supplements, or medications.”. The amount of activated charcoal used in cocktails recipes – which can vary from a teaspoon to a single 280mg capsule – influences its absorbing effect. Either way, the risk remains “that a guest effectively misses one dose of the medication.”

The chance of activated charcoal affecting a patron’s medical treatment may be not worth a sleek black drink, especially when there are other options to achieve the same hue. In our previous article, we offered some valid alternatives – like squid ink for instance – and Cocktailsafe also recommends trying blackcurrant, ground black sesame seeds and food colouring.

7. Tonka Beans

Tonka beans are raisin-like legumes from South America. They are characterised by a potent aroma which mixes notes of almond, vanilla and cinnamon. In the food and beverage industry, tonka beans are a somewhat controversial ingredient. Since 1954, they have been completely banned in the United States, but pretty much everywhere else they are regarded as a premium ingredient, used in food and drinks alike.

The point of contention is one of their compounds – coumarin, a substance which during lab tests on some animals has been found to cause liver failure in high dosages. To date, however, no human death has been linked to a coumarin overdose and since its ban in the US, this substance has been discovered in other common and legal ingredients like cassia cinnamon, lavender and liquorice. Nowadays, coumarin is also lawfully added inside cosmetics, detergents, shower gels and even e-cigarettes.

When it comes to cocktails, tonka beans are mainly used in shavings. Cross Yu, Bartender of the Year at DMBA 2019, says that their aroma is so powerful that one bean can be used for up to 50 cocktails. For a person to reach toxic levels of coumarin consumption, it would take around 30 whole tonka beans, or 1,500 cocktails. Enough said.

8. Rhubarb Leaves

Rhubarb serves many purposes in the food and beverage industry. Its stalks, usually from a variety of the plant known as garden rhubarb, are widely used in food preparations and also to flavour syrups, spirits and cocktails. Rhubarb roots, usually from the Chinese rhubarb variety, are used mainly as a flavouring agent in bitter liqueurs such as Zucca and Aperol.

However, its leaves are not suitable for consumption as they contain high levels of oxalic acid, a compound which in our body binds with calcium and increases the chances of kidney stones and also cause nausea. In most places where you can buy rhubarb, they will not sell rhubarb leaves – mainly just the stems – but knowing about their toxicity might come in handy if you decide to grow your own plant at home or at the bar.

9. Tobacco

The dangers of tobacco are well known and its health hazards are no different in the bar industry. When it is used in bars, tobacco flavours syrups, bitters or spirits to impart a distinct smoky note to a concoction. During this preparation, nicotine is released inside the liquid and ingested by imbibers at every sip.

Cocktailsafe tells of “drinkers that have reported feeling effects – dizziness and heart palpitations – from only very small amounts (drops and dashes) of tobacco-infused alcohol.”

According to an article on Medical News Today, “Tobacco products that are chewed, placed inside the mouth, […] tend to release considerably larger amounts of nicotine into the body than smoking.”

Such intake increases the possibility of nicotine poisoning, a serious condition which presents symptoms spanning from nausea, dizziness and headaches to seizures or respiratory failures and, in extreme cases, death.

10. Wormwood

Wormwood is a Mediterranean herb characterised by a pungent and bitter aroma. It’s been used to flavour spirits throughout history and is the fundamental botanical in vermouths. It’s also an important ingredient in other spirits – absinthe being the most notorious.

Despite such presence in the world of spirits, wormwood is approached with caution because of one of its compounds: thujone. High dosages of this substance have been shown to block communication of some neuroreceptors in the brain, causing convulsions and seizures. For these reasons, thujone content is regulated by law in many countries.

Although the health hazard is real, a 2010 study on the risks of thujone showed that the acceptable daily intake is 0,11mg/kg daily, an amount “which would not be reachable even for consumers of high-levels of thujone-containing foods (including absinthe)”. Moreover, as noted by Amy Stewart in The Drunken Botanist, “many other culinary plants, including sage, are even higher in thujone than wormwood and aren’t regulated at all”.

11. Nutmeg

Nutmeg is a popular ingredient in cocktails – take a look at our recent article on Eggnog for a great example. Whether you use it to garnish or to spice up your concoctions, it’s always best to exercise caution as nutmeg contains large amounts of myristicin – a compound that can affect our nervous system, causing side effects like hallucinations, dizziness and nausea. According to Healthline, 10g or two teaspoons of nutmeg directly ingested can cause symptoms of toxicity.

The nutmeg amount inside cocktails is usually far lower due to its strong flavour, but it’s always better to be aware of the “nutmeg high”.

12. Leather

Leather-aged cocktails are a recent trend in the bar industry. Depth of flavour is added by placing spirits inside wineskins or goat-leather bota bags. When it comes to this method, the most important safety aspect is ensuring that the leather of such vessels has been certified for food use.

That would mean using a special tanning process, as the most common one uses many chemicals among which is chromium, a compound potentially harmful to human health.

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