The age of cannabis cocktails has arrived—and if you ask writer and spirit brand ambassador Warren Bobrow, author of Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, & Tonics, it’s been a long time coming. The “Cocktail Whisperer,” as he has come to be known, has been experimenting with cannabis tinctures and infusions for decades, and is one of the first to publish a book detailing his recipes. And while many still view marijuana as an incorrigible vice, Bobrow’s is a much more academic and, at times, spiritual fascination.
Who is the Cocktail Whisperer?
Like most people in the cocktail industry, Warren Bobrow’s story is a bit of a meandering one. Originally trained as a saucier, his career began with a dishwashing job at a restaurant in the seaside town of York Harbor, Maine. He eventually worked his way up to an executive chef position before turning south, starting his own fresh pasta business in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1980s.
“Then we had Hurricane Hugo, and I lost everything,” he explained, rather matter-of-factly. “I moved back to New Jersey, where I was born and raised, and got a job that paid the bills and allowed me to save and have all the nice perks that go with that.”
What followed was a 20-year stint as an executive assistant in the banking industry, a job he mostly couldn’t stand. “I didn’t belong in the corporate world—everyone told me so, but I wasn’t listening,” he said. “I made good money and it was tough to leave. But eventually, I lost my job, and I had to figure out what the heck I was going to do.”
Bobrow had always been interested in writing, but by his own admission he didn’t know the first thing about it. Thanks to a connection through his previous employer, though, he got his first chance to prove himself in 2009.
“So I started writing about food and wine, which were the things I was comfortable with. I came across a magazine out in San Francisco called Served Raw, and they gave me a chance to write for them—but they couldn’t afford to pay me anything. They were founders of Amazon or something and they still convinced me they couldn’t afford it,” he laughed. “But it didn’t matter because I started creating things, making drinks.”
He ingratiated himself with the magazine’s editors, and eventually earned himself the moniker of Cocktail Whisperer. “When the magazine went out of business—you know how publications come and go—they gifted me the domain cocktailwhisperer.com, and I still use it today. I think it’s a fitting name, because I try to speak to ingredients from a melodic and nostalgic point of view.”
A Modern Apothecary
The craft cocktail movement was well underway by the time the Cocktail Whisperer came to be, but Bobrow found himself drawn to a relatively unexplored corner of the industry’s history: the apothecary shop. Not always the most reputable businesspeople (hence the archetypal “snake oil salesman”), these early pharmacists nevertheless played an important role in the development of many ingredients and recipes we take for granted today.
“My grandfather was in the patent pharmaceutical business. He made drugs that were sold in pharmacies all over the world. The colognes and aftershaves made him a wealthy man, but the over-the-counter pharmaceuticals made him a real fortune.”
Perhaps his most famous product was Geritol, an iron supplement that was cited for false advertising that “amounted to gross negligence and bordered on recklessness,” according to the FTC. “He always referred to it as selling ice to eskimos,” Bobrow recounted wryly.
It was, at least in part, this family connection that first piqued his curiosity about history of apothecaries. Rather than attempting to validate what was a pretty clearly unethical business, though, Bobrow has always viewed patent medicines as a manifestation of a much more ancient practice: traditional folk medicine.
His first book, Apothecary Cocktails, explores a number of turn-of-the-century recipes and ingredients that have left a mark on popular drinking culture, as well as the contemporary bars that have sought to revive them. But even back then, cannabis as a cocktail ingredient was squarely on Bobrow’s radar.
The Good Old Days of Cannabis Cocktails
“When I wrote my first book, Apothecary Cocktails, I wanted to include cannabis in it, because it has such a long and storied history as a pharmaceutical. But my publisher wouldn’t let me. They told me that America wasn’t ready for it yet, and I think in many ways they still aren’t.
As public opinion and the political landscape shifted over the last half-decade, though, he began to feel that the time was ripe for an in-depth exploration of the intersection between cannabis and alcohol—long-time bedfellows in the form of tinctures and infusions in the medicine cabinets of yesteryear.
“I was doing a book signing for my third book, Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails, at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum a while back. At the same time, they were doing a presentation on cannabis in the early pharmacy. I had my entire book written for me, right there!” he said, laughing. “The trick, though, was getting my publisher to even consider it.”
Bobrow got in touch with his editor, who informed him that the publishing house was actually considering a cannabis project for future release. He scrambled to put together a book proposal in three days, and to his delight, they accepted it.
The Culinary Side of Cannabis
One of the things Bobrow wanted to develop was a guide to the flavor profiles of different strains of cannabis—after all, the research that goes into drink development these days is far from trivial.
“I wanted to make drinks that were approachable from a flavor standpoint. You have things like Fernet-Branca which is so popular these days, you have all these amari and herbal digestifs on the market, and even vermouth is hot again. Those are all great for introducing people to cannabis as a cocktail ingredient, because they’ve paved the way for strong, herbal flavors in drinks.”
But unlike alcoholic ingredients, he also had to consider the different psychoactive properties of each. “For example, I tried infusing Absinthe Edouard with a high-quality indica strain. It created this wonderfully lucid, translucent feeling. It also makes a great Absinthe Frappé,” he said, chuckling.
“In the book, I describe a series of strains and give tasting notes, like someone would taste whiskey. The idea was to make a guide that would be useful for a cocktail bar, and talk about the interplay between different flavors and psychoactive effects.”
Not Just for the Stoners
One of the biggest challenges when it came to writing Cannabis Cocktails, though, was figuring out how to make it accessible to a wider audience than the typical stoner crowd. “What I wanted to present was a different take on healing, like the early apothecary,” he explained. “These substances were used for years and years, and it was only because of the ‘drugs are bad’ movement that they’ve been erased from history.”
While the book has faced some backlash from anti-drug activists (and even a few cannabis proponents), it seems that Bobrow is sincerely concerned with ensuring that people enjoy his recipes responsibly. It seems like every other page of his book includes a warning about not overdoing it, and it’s one of the first subjects he brought up in our interview.
“This book is not for beginners,” he stressed, “and I try to make that very clear throughout. They’re strong drinks, even though we did our best to minimize their strength. I don’t recommend them to people who are just looking to party—ideally, they’ll introduce medical and recreational users to the rich history of cannabis in the healing arts.
“What affects me might not affect you the same way, and it might just completely destroy that guy over there,” he continued, pointing to an oblivious patron in the corner. “That’s why I stress: never more than one drink per hour. I take the Thai food principle. You can always get Thai food mild, and add more spice later. Once the spice is there, it’s not coming out. Same thing with a cannabis cocktail.”
The Future of Cannabis Cocktails
Despite the fact that recreational marijuana remains illegal throughout most of the United States, Cannabis Cocktails has been a hit nationwide. And based on its reception at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, the bartending industry is itching for more opportunities to put his recipes to the test.
We don’t know what the future will hold, but if current trends continue, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a handful of other states joining Colorado and Washington in cannabis legalization this November. But it’s clear that no matter what, Warren Bobrow will be at the forefront, an apothecary for the modern day.
Feature Photo: Will Shenton, Bevvy