Activated charcoal has been a rising star in the world of trendy health fads, lauded for its ability to remove toxins and chemicals from the body. As a cocktail ingredient, activated charcoal is also riding a wave of popularity—it’s versatile in the mixology world because it doesn’t impart its own flavor, but it does provide a velvety texture and dark grey or black coloring for drinks.
“Activated charcoal is an amazing detoxifying agent and helps promote a stronger immune system and increased digestive health,” says Jasmine Jacobson, the health beverage director for the six-unit, plant-based Southern California restaurant company Café Gratitude. “It can actually help prevent hangovers and balance out the acidic effects of drinking.”
Café Gratitude locations in Newport Beach and Beverly Hills, California, offer the Black Magic cocktail ($14), a drink comprising Fernet Branca, Black Magic Alchemy’s Chaga Mushroom Rootbeer syrup and activated charcoal powder. The venues also feature a Charcoal Martini ($14) that mixes activated charcoal with vodka or gin and vermouth. “Consumers are very interested in activated charcoal because they’re starting to see it in more juice bars and restaurants,” Jacobson says. “But not many people add it to cocktails. We love hearing reactions from our guests when they try a charcoal drink for the first time.”
While the health benefits of activated charcoal are widely touted, drinks expert Nandini Khaund, the spirits guide at Cindy’s Rooftop Restaurant in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, notes that it should be listed on menus with a warning. She makes a syrup out of activated charcoal harvested from organic coconut husks, but notes that for guests on certain medications the charcoal can negatively affect how their bodies process medicine. Her venue serves the Reanimator, a drink that mixes fresh blueberries and ginger, Demerara sugar, and lime juice with the charcoal syrup and Avuá Prata cachaça ($16; $8 without alcohol).
“Our guests were immediately intrigued and excited by the Reanimator drink when we began serving it in early 2016,” Khaund says. “They love the incongruity of the drink’s dark color and light flavor—our black drink is bright with fresh blueberries, ginger and lime.”
The mysterious qualities activated charcoal imparts on a drink are a big draw for Leigh Lecap, bar manager at San Diego’s Campfire. “We mix it into one of our seasonal cocktails in the ‘From the Fire’ section of our menu,” Lecap says. “For these drinks, we employ one of several wood-fired cooking techniques in the cocktails.”
The bar’s current offering, the Charred Cactus ($12), is made with activated charcoal–infused El Jimador Blanco Tequila, charred nopales syrup, peach purée and fresh lime juice. “I believe vision affects taste,” Lecap adds. “The drink’s black color helps eliminate preconceived notions of what it’ll taste like. Our guests are definitely curious about it, and sometimes timid or skeptical when they see the black cocktail. But once they try it they usually order another.”
At New York City venue Beauty & Essex, the Black Tie White Noise ($17) comprises Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated single malt Scotch, Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack Tennessee whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, Angostura bitters, simple syrup, lemon juice and activated charcoal. “The Bruichladdich Scotch and Gentleman Jack tie the drink together and complement the activated charcoal,” says general manager Vincent DeGrazia. “We think charcoal will continue to become more prominent behind the bar.”