Words by Simon Difford
So many cocktails end up looking the same. Not if they are shaken with charcoal. Charcoal can dramatically change the appearance of a cocktail, turning it deep black. And without the salty, briny notes associated with squid ink, or the blue rather that black tones that come from blueberries. However, BEWARE the health risks.
Burn wood, coal, or most likely your toast, and you'll produce carbon. However, before any bright spark starts muddling barbeque charcoal, it should be made clear that all charcoal is not created equal. The stuff that is "safe" or at least safer in limited quantities [SEE RISKS BELOW] to ingest, activated charcoal, is processed to be ultra-absorbent in hygienic conditions. Activated charcoal is made by heating in the presence of a gas, so causing the charcoal to develop lots of pores. This increases its surface area and makes the charcoal highly absorbent as it traps substances in those pores.
If you ever handled charcoal, you'll also know it's black and stains or marks pretty much everything it comes into contact with - including cocktails. While the change in a cocktail's colour due to the addition of charcoal is dramatic, the flavour is little changed besides being faintly smoky with a touch of added bitterness. Texturally, the change is more noticeable, leaving a distinct grittiness in the mouth.
Activated charcoal is prized for its absorbent properties, whether that's as a filtration medium in vodka production or as an insert in shoes to tame people's smelly feet. Once ingested charcoal absorbs stuff inside our bodies, hence the perceived health benefits claimed below. However, that ability to absorb also has negative effects which can be dangerous.
Whether you're taking tablets for a serious health condition, contraceptive pills or just vitamin supplements, you should not consume these or any other medication within at least four hours of drinking a cocktail containing charcoal. In fact, if you are taking prescription drugs we'd recommend you play safe and choose another cocktail.
The same applies to nutrients as activated charcoal also absorbs vitamins and minerals - something which should be considered next time you see charcoal in a smoothie being promoted for its beneficial vitamin content. Considering this, charcoal cocktails should not be consumed immediately before or after dinner.
Activated charcoal can bind to/absorb as much as 100 times its own weight and this may result in some serious clumping inside your system. A "this cocktail could induce constipation waring" may not be the best driver of sales on a cocktail menu, but that's the reality. And you all know what Berocca does to your wee, well charcoal could have a blackening effect on your poop. Less concerning, it may also turn your tongue black - now there's a thought for Halloween.
Perceived health benefits
On the extreme side of medical care, activated charcoal is used to treat drug overdoses or poisoning as drugs and toxins can be absorbed by the charcoal so helping the body naturally excrete these unwanted substances. Obviously, if you are poisoned don't try self-administering activated charcoal - call emergency services.
As a visit to your local health food store will illustrate, activated charcoal is also used to treat more mundane medical issues such as trapped gas and high cholesterol. Some even claim it can help prevent hangovers. As with drug overdoses, the theory is that it helps the body get rid of toxins and oxidants. However, like so many other items in the same store, research results tend to be inconclusive as to activated charcoal's health benefits.
No matter - just those perceived benefits mean bartenders can easily obtain activated charcoal in the form of easy to handle capsules. Simply cut the end of a single capsule with a pair of scissors and pour half the contents into your shaker. (260 mg capsules are the most common size - enough for two cocktails shaken in the same tin.)
Cocktails with activated charcoal
You can add activated charcoal to just about any cocktail recipe and the result will be a black drink. So Black Corpse Reviver anyone? Thankfully, some bartenders have been more creative:
Vessel: Skull bowl
Garnish: Candle and orchids garnish
Method: Add activated charcoal to shaker. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sorrel. Shake with about three large ice cubes. Strain over crushed ice into vessel. Pack a lit votive candle into the crushed ice on top of the cocktail. Measure and pour the sorrel around the candle.
• 2 oz Santa Teresa 1796
• ½ spoon Activated charcoal
• 1 oz Kalamansi
• 1 oz Orange juice
• ½ oz Honey
• ½ oz Ginger
• 1 oz Arrack
• Top with 2 oz Sorrel
Origin: Created by Jim Kearns for Slowly Shirley, New York City, USA.
Fade to Black
Garnish: Rosemary sprig
Method: Add Chartreuse and rosemary to glass. Shake other ingredients with ice. Ignite chartreuse in glass for 10 seconds and then strain contents of shaker over flame to extinguish. Fill with ice.
• ½ oz Chartreuse
• 1 sprig Rosemary
• 1½ oz Starr "Black Rum"*
• ½ oz Ginger syrup
• ¼ oz Freshly squeezed lemon juice
• ¼ oz Freshly squeezed lime juice
• ½ oz Simple syrup
*Starr Black Rum - dissolve 1 tbsp of raw activated charcoal powder in 1 bottle of Starr Ultra Superior Light Rum (750ml)
Origin: Created by Martin McLoughlin for David Burke Kitchen, New York City, USA
photo by Paul Wagtouicz
Heart of Darkness
Garnish: Serve on black lace heart-shaped doily/activated charcoal sprayed orchid on top
Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into glass filled with crushed ice.
• 1½ oz Cimarrón Blanco Tequila
• ½ oz Koch Espadin mezcal
• ½ oz Freshly squeezed lime juice
• ½ oz Agave syrup
• 2 spoon Activated Charcoal Raspberry Preserves*
• 1 dash Bittermens Mole bitters
*Per batch: one 370g jar of raspberry preserves to 5 tsp of activated charcoal. Use the immersion blender to integrate.
Origin: Created by Courtney Colarik for Pouring Ribbons, New York City, USA.
Black Tie White Noise
Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into chilled glass.
• 1½ oz Gentlemen Jack
• ½ oz Yellow Chartreuse
• ¼ oz Bruichladdich Port Charlotte
• ½ oz simple syrup
• ¾ oz lemon juice
• 2 dashes Angostura bitters
• 1 capsule activated charcoal
Origin: Beauty & Essex, New York City, USA.