In her time behind the bar, Julia McKinley has mixed thousands of cocktails.
The Chicago mixologist has swum with hundreds of spirits — modern riffs and vintage rarities, liquids both classic and esoteric — and worked with mixology master Paul McGee at renowned watering holes like Milk Room and Lost Lake.
Naturally, she was intrigued when she was approached by Chicago hospitality partners Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue about working with an ingredient she had never before shaken nor stirred: cannabis — specifically cannabidiol, or CBD, the cannabis compound that recently has grown into a huge hit in the wellness industry.
“(Cannabis) was always an interest for me, so when (McElroy and Donahue) brought up the possibility of using CBD in nonalcoholic cocktails as an alternative, it was very appealing to me,” McKinley said.
The partners asked McKinley about joining their lounge concept called Young American and crafting a bar menu in which the nonalcoholic cocktails would be the highlight: Each would be infused with CBD, one of more than 100 known cannabis compounds, called cannabinoids.
“I’ve always been interested in the cannabis industry, and it’s really matured in recent years,” McKinley said. “It’s not just stoner culture.”
The most famous cannabinoid is the one that gets you high: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. But CBD is not like THC. CBD evokes no psychoactive effects, and some early CBD research has actually shown that the cannabinoid could offer medicinal benefits to help with seizures, inflammation, anxiety and related sleep issues. Significant clinical research about CBD has been limited to its (seemingly successful) potential in treating epilepsy. Still, CBD converts tout its ability to provide relief — from pain, from anxiety, from recurring seizures — and have helped create a market that could be worth $22 billion by 2022, per estimates. That wellness potential was a major reason McKinley signed on with Young American.
“We got really excited about (creating CBD cocktails),” said McKinley, who became Young American’s beverage director, but has since left the bar. “Of course, it became really complicated.”
Their complications weren’t unique. Any beverage maker, whether a big corporation or a small business, faces a fundamental issue when trying to put weed in their water: Cannabinoids are hydrophobic, or insoluble in water. That creates confusion for consumers, primarily: How was the CBD infused, and, thus, will they feel its effects? The answer to the latter largely depends on the former.
“For compounds like CBD that don’t really mix well with water, usually you have to put another agent with it to help it dissolve,” said Dr. Yasmin Hurd, a professor of neuroscience, pharmacological sciences and psychiatry at New York City’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Different ways used by people or the pharmaceutical industry are being adapted by cannabinoid companies.”
In the United States, CBD is derived from legalized hemp plants, which are low in THC and high in CBD. The latter compound has already enjoyed rapid, robust success as an ingredient in wellness products such as lotions, balms and creams, all of which are easier to infuse than water-based beverages. Producers don’t have to worry about chemical binding agents adding unwanted flavors, and topical application sends the CBD straight to your skin tissue.
Oral ingestion works differently. Simple tinctures (substances dissolved in alcohol) are currently the most common method, but they can’t simply be swallowed. The oils must be absorbed sublingually by the mucous membranes under your tongue. Dripping a dank, earthy oil under one’s tongue — then keeping it there for up to a couple of minutes — is not exactly ideal, but otherwise your body wouldn’t absorb it properly.
“If you’re consuming CBD (that has been dripped) in a product like water or food, most of it is going to get metabolized in your gut, so your intestines and your liver enzymes, they will break down most of the CBD, so most of it, you’re not going to absorb,” Hurd said.
Infused beverages are viewed as an improvement on the tincture method, and making them water-soluble has become cannabinoid companies’ key to creating an effective upgrade. Without solubility, CBD’s bioavailability, the degree to which it is absorbed into the body, becomes limited — as low as 4%, according to a 2007 academic article published in Chemistry and Biodiversity.
“Using these drug-delivery systems, these nano-lipid spheres or emulsifiers will definitely enhance bioavailability and more CBD getting into your system,” Hurd said.
Despite CBD’s solubility challenges, cannabinoid companies have plenty of incentive to grapple with the issue. The cannabis-infused beverage market could become $600 million big by 2022, according to a projection in late 2018 by Canadian investment banking and financial services company Canaccord Genuity.
“Everyone in the industry recognizes that CBD-infused beverages are going to be one of the largest category opportunities in all of CBD,” said Ben Witte, the founder and CEO of Recess, a company producing CBD-infused sparkling water. “As a result of that, a lot of the suppliers in the supply chain have innovated to create a format that is soluble in beverages.”
Recess is a buzzy, New York-based entrant into the CBD beverage market, one of several cannabinoid companies using an emulsifier, the kind of binding agent described by Hurd. The technology is essentially a molecular riff on emulsion techniques that have been used in the culinary and pharmaceutical industries.
“We actually have received that question from a number of consumers, ‘I know that it’s an oil; how do you mix oil and water?’ (Our manufacturer has) a patent-pending oil formulation that actually uses something called ‘nanoemulsion.’ If you look at your shampoo or your lotion bottle, all of those will have an emulsifier, a binding agent, so it’s going to hold on to both water and oil molecules,” said Katrina Zheleznyak, a product management consultant for Recess. “So it’s kind of a third party in the whole formulation that holds together things that would usually not mix and would separate.
“What’s really special about … nanoemulsion, (it means) you’re not just binding together water and oil droplets, you’re binding them together on a tiny, tiny level.” Those droplets disperse throughout the liquid and remain suspended there in a way that appears completely dissolved.
This nanoemulsion technology is owned by the manufacturer, not Recess. Witte and Zheleznyak declined to identify their production partner beyond being “one of the top manufacturers in the U.S.” and based in Colorado.
“We’re not going to share that. That’s like our secret sauce,” he said.
In water-based CBD products, emulsifying agents are designed to account for a number of variables caused by cannabinoids’ water-insolubility, including bioavailability. However, the increase in bioavailability depends on the quality of the emulsifier, per Hurd, adding another variable to the oral consumption equation. The nanoemulsion method improves bioavailability in Recess, Zheleznyak said.
Witte and Zheleznyak emphasized the “high quality” of their supplier’s CBD and nanoemulsion process, which is used to infuse each flavor of its sparkling waters — peach ginger, pom hibiscus and blackberry chai — with 10 milligrams of CBD.
That’s a comparatively light dosage — the CBD beverage market has unofficially adopted a 25-30 milligram standard serving size. That’s the amount going into cocktails at Young American, and for CBD infusions at Protein Bar and Kitchen, a Chicago-based establishment with six other locations nationwide.
Witte and Zheleznyak recognized the 10 milligram dose as being on the “lower end” but described it as “very deliberate,” a way to make Recess an introductory product: “20 to 25 milligrams seemed like less of an entry level product to us,” Zheleznyak said.
She said the CBD content is aided by the “entourage effect,” a theory that a fuller spectrum of cannabinoids — as well as botanicals also called “adaptogens” — can create synergy and mutually enhance effectiveness of one another. So, the sparkling water also gets a hit of 130 milligrams of L-theanin and 200 milligrams each of ginseng and schisandra.
“We’re not trying to make you overly chilled or relaxed, but balanced,” Witte said.
Other retail CBD beverages span the spectrum in terms of dosage. Another popular canned CBD beverage, Vybes, features 25 milligrams of CBD per can. California brewery Lagunitas recently released its HiFi Hops beverage, which comes in two forms: one with 5 milligrams each of CBD and THC, and one with 10 milligrams of THC only. (These are only available in California.) Lord Jones, a popular producer of CBD-infused chocolates, puts 20 milligrams of CBD in each candy.
Another variable for water-soluble CBD beverages? Stability. Even with a binding agent, oil and water naturally separate over time, and sedimentation occurs. That separation can also decrease the bioavailability.
“The specific product we use is specifically designed for beverages. There’s no other use for it,” Witte said. “And so you’re going to design for solubility in water, that it doesn’t affect the color or the taste, and stability. Stability is an important one. Our product is at least 12 months shelf stable.”
Applying nanoemulsions in food and drink is not a new idea, but it has become very relevant in the midst of the cannabinoid rush. In 2006, an article published by the Journal of Physics concluded that “nanoemulsions exhibit enhanced shelf stability” versus comparable microemulsions, and that nanoemulsions could remain suspended for very long periods of time — even indefinitely.
Given how young and inconsistently regulated the CBD market remains in the U.S., “producers still have to prove that (stability),” Hurd said. “Emulsified” does not equate to “dissolved” in chemical terms, so the use of “water soluble” in this context is not technically correct — a classic example of consumer-facing rhetoric not exactly aligning with scientific specifics.
“We’re in a CBD bubble right now, right? Search ‘water soluble CBD’ on Google, and you’ll find lots of things,” Witte said. “I think the challenge is separating the signal from the noise right now.”
Regardless of solubility or stability, any CBD-infused drink still has to taste good, and emulsifiers make that variable as well. Legitimate chemical binding agents often are not tasty; as Zheleznyak mentioned, many of them are found in shampoos or other hygienic products.
In a tasting of Recess sparkling waters by Tribune staff writers, the consensus was that an odd aftertaste was the primary drawback.
While companies like Recess have pursued elaborate emulsion technologies, many smaller operations — including bars such as Young American — have taken a different approach.
At Young American, McKinley used a powdered CBD isolate to mix her cocktails. (The isolate powder and tonic water are the only packaged goods McKinley used in her drinks.) She did not want to share the name of the manufacturer but said it is based in Indiana and extracts the isolate using CO2 and cryo-ethanol technologies.
Cannabinoid isolates, as the name implies, isolate a compound like CBD to present it alone, while full- and broad-spectrum oils incorporate a complete or nearly complete spectrum of cannabinoids such as terpenes and flavonoids. This is the entourage effect again: the fuller the spectrum, the more effective the dosage.
McKinley said she wanted to work with different forms of CBD in the future, including a full-spectrum option, but the powdered isolate was the best option she found in terms of its solubility. She accounted for temperature and timing when mixing her CBD solution to maximize that dissolution.
“Water soluble is a bit of a stretch. … (Putting straight powder) into the cocktails lines the shaker, but if it sits awhile, it dissolves a little bit better,” she said. “What we have now is good, and I feel confident in it, but we’re also looking into other options and new products as well.”
Although spectrum oils are derived from nonpsychoactive hemp plants, they still contain a negligible amount of THC, typically 0.3%.
Even that trace amount of THC has caused some — including Recess, Young American and Protein Bar — to opt for a broad-spectrum or isolate option, rather than the full spectrum, in order to exclude the psychoactive cannabinoid.
“If we’re going to market this as something for everybody, we need to make sure that there isn’t really any potential for false positives on drug tests, or whatever people’s worries may be, so paying more for a full-spectrum hemp extract that actually has 0% THC is really worth it,” Zheleznyak said.
The market preference is shifting toward fuller-spectrum oils. However, the potential benefits among various spectrums versus isolates remain largely unresolved from a scientific perspective, given the intense federal restrictions placed on cannabis research for decades due to its classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
Methods vary, but smaller operations like Young American have leaned toward using some form of a water-soluble CBD isolate, or purchasing a product that has already been infused with CBD.
At IO Godfrey in Chicago, for instance, guests can add 15 milligrams of a water-soluble CBD tincture to any cocktail for an extra cost, similar to the offer at Protein Bar. Meanwhile, Lincoln Hall and Schubas Tavern serve a CBD cocktail that includes CBD-infused simple syrup made by Euphoric. McKinley also said she has been researching additional CBD-infused ingredients, like a simple syrup or honey.
Hurd said that many cannabinoid companies are adapting their water-soluble methods from pharmaceutical companies. Between that and the medicinal legal origins of cannabis, it makes sense that a bioscience company in Canada claims to have the first naturally water-soluble formula for cannabinoids.
The potentially revelatory process comes from Sproutly, which owns the (Canadian) legal rights to cannabinoid extraction equipment called A.P.P., or aqueous phyto-recovery process. Sproutly CEO Keith Dolo explained how the A.P.P. equipment works, a process he called “leeching” or “fermenting” rather than “extraction.”
“We take a cannabis biomass and a formula that is derived of grass-certified compounds. Salt, sugar, water and vinegar, where we’ve mixed in a certain formulation, a specific reagent package. It looks like a liter of water when you look at it,” Dolo said. “It’s passed over and circulated over the cannabis plant. … When it’s strained out, it has these water-soluble molecules embedded within the water reagent package, which you could drink (by itself), and we never even touched the free oils.”
It’s a pretty bold claim. “Free oils” are what virtually every cannabinoid company yields during extraction processes, and what they use to manufacture their products. With its method, Sproutly gets a double-yield from each plant. The company calls this unique water-soluble solution Infuz20.
Aside from the potentially enhanced solubility and bioavailability of Infuz20, Dolo also said the company was glad to avoid adding an emulsifier, technically a chemical additive.
“Companies try to limit the amount of chemicals in drinks, not add more,” he said. “Not only from a moral standpoint, and not only from a health perspective, there’s a flavor issue. … It’s a completely bitter taste.”
Dolo said Sproutly is currently focusing north of the U.S. border in preparation for the legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada. And while Sproutly does not own the rights to the A.P.P. technology in the U.S. — that still belongs to Toronto-based biotech lab Infusion Biosciences — Dolo said he doesn’t anticipate anyone bringing A.P.P.-created cannabis products stateside in the near future.
“I don’t know if it will get into the U.S. until the federal border allows (cannabis),” he said.
From legalities to emerging research and science about cannabis, understanding CBD-infused products requires consumers to drink in a lot of information.
Hurd stressed the importance of a discerning eye as a consumer, largely because the industry is new and not yet well-regulated.
“You have to know the quality of the CBD that’s going in. In New York, (a news organization) took some CBD from different stores and the internet, and they found that some of them contained lead. Some of them contained pesticides, and the concentrations didn’t match. Some of them didn’t contain CBD at all,” she said. “With so many companies trying to profit from the CBD trend, there are going to be companies that are not legitimate and not having legitimate CBD.”
Indeed, a report from NBC News in New York discovered exactly those results — including gummies purchased online that offered 0% of any cannabinoid.
“I just want people to keep in mind that not all products are created equal,” she said. “With so many companies trying now to profit from the CBD trend, there are going to be some that are not legitimate.”
Learning about a CBD product’s sourcing and creation process can help customers assess what they’re getting, Hurd said. Despite its capitalist attraction or potentially fraught regulation, CBD has displayed real potential as a wellness ingredient.
“I definitely don’t want to be serving CBD that isn’t made in a healthy way,” McKinley said while still at Young American. “Most of these spirit-free cocktails contain some sort of health ingredients, and that’s something I’m really eager to get more into.”
Eat. Watch. Do.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life … now.
McKinley was still perfecting her process — not unlike the industry at large. The application of CBD in bar culture has exposed a somewhat unexpected and refreshing social wrinkle, she said.
“I wanted to make drinks that tasted, maybe not like alcohol, but had the impact of a cocktail, had the same weight on your palate, the complexity of the flavors you get with a cocktail … trying to mimic those flavors on your palate, so you’re not just drinking like a lemonade, which is what you get at a lot of bars for nonalcoholic drinks,” McKinley said. “That people are really into spirit-free cocktails is super flattering.
“This is meant to be something that’s inclusive. People who might not be interested in bar culture or unable to consume alcohol for whatever reason, I’m trying to make those people feel comfortable and feel like they can have a good time and spend time with their friends without drinking alcohol. … It’s fun to be able to say (to nonalcoholic drinkers) ‘Well I’ve got something cool for you.’”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Julia McKinley has left Young American. The bar still serves CBD cocktails.