By Lauren Knight
If you notice your drinks have lately been looking a little, um, sooty, don’t be alarmed. Activated charcoal is probably the cause of your cocktail’s black hue, and you may be seeing more of it in 2017.
Activated charcoal is really nothing new. Traditionally, it’s been found in hospitals where it’s used as an emergency treatment for some forms of poisoning. It’s also been used as a filter for water and in food-processing operations. More recently, it has become a darling of the beauty and wellness industry, touted as a detox dynamo.
This charcoal isn’t the stuff you feed your grill on a summer evening; we’re not talking briquettes here. Activated charcoal is made from vegetal ingredients—coconut shell is a common one—and treated with gases at high pressure to create an extremely porous material that aids in the adsorption of toxins. In short, the process creates pockets in the charcoal that soak up the icky stuff before it can get into your body.
Its role as a toxin sponge has made charcoal a popular remedy, used in juice cleanses, face scrubs and teeth-whitening toothpastes.
Another oft cited use of charcoal is to cure hangovers. Activated charcoal is said to aid the liver in ridding the body of alcohol’s less desirable by-products. Bartender Zach Rivera of Headquarters Beercade in River North (213 West Institute), however, isn’t certain that charcoal is going to do you much good when it’s mixed up in a cocktail. “I’ve heard of the proposed health benefits,” he says. “Some of them seem legitimate, but some seem kind of ridiculous. It was a trendy health thing I never really understood.”
Nonetheless, Rivera uses activated charcoal in Beetle Juice, one of Headquarters’ bottled cocktails, but it’s not the detox element that interests him. Rather, what Rivera likes is the color the ingredient infuses into the beverage. Activated charcoal turns a drink black, an unusual and perhaps unsettling hue for a beverage. It doesn’t take much to make your drink go dark: just two tablespoons of activated charcoal per three to four gallons of a cocktail will turn the liquid completely black. “Any more than that,” says Rivera, “and you start getting a viscous texture.” No one wants to drink a glass of what looks and feels like crude oil.
Such small amounts of activated charcoal mean that the Beetle Juice won’t be a miracle, hangover-free elixir, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to drink. Rivera says that customers are often surprised by the disconnect, the cognitive dissonance between appearance and taste. “Beetle Juice is basically a daiquiri—rum, lime and cane syrup,” Rivera explains. “It’s bright and citrusy, which does not match the inky look at all.”
Cindy’s, the top floor restaurant in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, is another place to get in on the dark drink trend. Their Reanimator—made with blueberry, ginger, demerara, lime and activated charcoal—can be enjoyed as a mocktail or livened up with the addition of cachaça. The pitch-black potion is fruity, refreshing and undeniably intriguing, and a lot of that has to do with the color of the cocktail, rather than the taste or the alleged health benefits.
“Activated charcoal adds a little bit of surprise and wonder [to our cocktails], which is what we are going for,” says Rivera,” but I can’t claim you won’t be hungover if you drink one.”
Our suggestion: try a charcoal cocktail for the sake of whimsy, but keep in mind that charcoal in capsule form might serve you better the next morning, when you’re maybe feeling a little more sober and a little less whimsical.