Humboldt Distillery founder Abe Stevens pours samples of a hemp-infused vodka at his facility in downtown Fortuna recently. (Shaun Walker/The Times-Standard)

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Distillers experimenting with hemp in alcohol, but cannabis cocktails still need federal OK

After Abe Stevens opened Humboldt County’s first commercial distillery in 2012, customers began to ask when he was going to put some of the local flavor into his vodka. Four years later, he decided to give it a shot.

“A lot of people just really embrace that stereotype of Humboldt being kind of a pot-growing capital,” Stevens said inside his Humboldt Distillery in Fortuna earlier this month. “We decided to do a little bit of experimenting and we liked the results.”

In the spring of this year, Stevens released his hemp-infused vodka “Humboldt’s Finest,” which he said has since allowed him to access markets throughout the nation.

“Often times when I go to distributors with our original vodka they’ll say ‘Well, we already have a million vodkas, we don’t have time to sell one more vodka,’ but when we have this it is new and unique and it really helps us get our foot in the door with them,” he said.

Hemp alcohol is one of the few exceptions to the federal prohibition of marijuana, which currently prevents commercial distillers and brewers from infusing most types of cannabis into their spirits, wines and beers. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates alcohol formulas and labeling and has allowed commercial alcohol products to contain hemp since 2000 as it contains miniscule amounts of marijuana’s psychoactive molecule THC.

“Until there is a change in federal law with regard to the classification of marijuana as a controlled substance and the (Food and Drug Administration) determines that it is safe for human consumption as part of a product that we regulate, (the bureau) will not approve formulas or labels for products that contain marijuana or any other controlled substance,” the bureau’s Public Affairs Director Thomas Hogue said.

Humboldt Distillery founder Abe Stevens talks about how different types of hard alcohol are made at his facility in downtown Fortuna recently. (Shaun Walker/The Times-Standard)

If cannabis alcohols are legalized, there are also ethical and safety concerns that arise when combining two intoxicating substances, especially as the state works to improve DUI detection for stoned drivers.

“The combination of the two together is going to enhance the effects of both,” said Matthew Lee, a Virginia physician and toxicology expert.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE

While customers won’t be seeing green-colored pot alcohol in their local liquor stores anytime soon, the legalization of nonmedical marijuana in eight states has caught the attention of alcohol producers large and small. The Washington Post recently reported that Constellation Brands, which owns popular brands like Corona beer and Svedka vodka, is now considering adding marijuana to some of their formulas.

Even with the federal prohibition, cannabis-infused alcohols are legally available in California, but only for medical marijuana patients.

California’s medical marijuana laws allow for patients and providers to make and purchase cannabis tinctures, which provide an alternative way for patients to consume cannabinoids like CBD and THC without having to smoke the product.

While tinctures are commonly found in small vials with a dropper to control the dosage, a Santa Cruz medical marijuana dispensary owner and Santa Maria wine maker decided in 2012 to create a different type of tincture — Canna Vine.

“It’s different than an edible because you’re getting it with an alcohol carrier,” Verdad Wine Cellars owner and wine maker Louisa Sawyer Lindquist said. “It doesn’t hit you an hour later like a ton of bricks. Just like a glass of wine, it’s a very gentle, nice effect.”

Canna Vine is a team effort. Sawyer Lindquist provides the wine grape juice while Greenway dispensary owner Lisa Molyneux of Santa Cruz ferments the wine with different strains of cannabis buds depending on the desired effect.

Home brewers and bartenders have been making their own cannabis alcohols, often called “Green Dragon,” for as long as the two products have been available. The passage of Proposition 64 this month now makes these infusions legal for adults older than 21 in California. But when it comes to making a medical product that will be used by cancer patients, Sawyer Lindquist said much more attention is needed during the fermentation process.

“Like a really good wine maker, you have to know your ingredients and flavors with the cannabis you get,” Sawyer Lindquist said. “Besides the flavor of the plant material, you also have to mix that in with the effect it has.”

Due to its fermentation process, Canna Vine is not a wine that will get the drinker high. The wine is fermented with cannabis buds, but temperatures are not high enough to decarboxylate, or activate, the cannabis’ psychoactive molecule THC. However, other cannabinoids such as CBD are released into the wine, creating what Sawyer Lindquist described as a relaxing effect.

“There is a sincere medicinal quality to it and you can tweak it depending on what effect you want,” Sawyer Lindquist said. “The major thing is that it’s great for stress and it helps people who are on chemo who need to get their appetite and want some kind of relaxation without it being very strong.”

Apart from experimenting in college, Sawyer Lindquist said she has never been much of a cannabis smoker, but she said she does believe that cannabis-infused alcohols do have a potential in the recreational market.

But how does it taste?

“It has a spicy element,” Sawyer Lindquist said. “You get that sometimes from barrels. This is kind of more of an herbaceous component. It depends on the quality of the ingredients. I think the goal that I’ve been working on and my idea is to use the best ingredients just like for wine.”

ETHICS IN ETHANOL

When Stevens released “Humboldt’s Finest” this year, he said it wasn’t about playing to a gimmick or stereotype. For him, hemp seeds provided an interesting botanical flavor that mixologists, bartenders and critics have found to their liking over the past seven months.

However, Stevens said he would draw the line at putting THC into his alcohol.

“Even if it was totally legal to do it, I don’t know how wise it is to mix THC and alcohol in the same product,” he said. “If we came out with a product like that, that would almost condone that we suggest that it is a good combination, which is not necessarily what I would like to condone.”

Those who opposed California’s marijuana legalization measure Proposition 64 cited increased DUIs and access by children as their main talking points. To appeal to these concerns, the proposition includes provisions that would provide millions of dollars of tax revenue toward developing a standardized DUI detection system for cannabis.

Lee, who has testified as a court expert on the effects of marijuana and alcohol, said a main risk of combining THC and alcohol would be inexperienced users.

“There are degrees of potency of how much of the plant you put in there,” he said. “Theoretically, one drink could knock you off your feet. There may be an upper limit to the potency, but that depends on how much THC they get in there.”

If marijuana cocktails are legalized, Proposition 64 gives the state the ability to set potency limits for marijuana products.

Lee said that mixing marijuana and alcohol is not as much of an ethical issue as it is a regulatory issue.

“There is a level of moderation,” he said. “There is probably somewhere in the middle where it is an ideal or marketable mixture where it just feels good.”