Master mixologist Warren Bobrow, also known as the Cocktail Whisperer, has gained a cult following for his deceptively simple, elegant drink creations. Now, with his fourth book, he’s showing us how to get high while we drink, literally. But Warren’s take is more elevated than that. Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, and Tonics: The Art of Spirited Drinks and Buzz-Worthy Libations breaks infusing your homemade drink with cannabis into an easy-to-follow science and includes 75 fresh recipes. You’ll also find non-alcoholic alternatives and a breakdown of drink-friendly strains and their flavor profiles, from piney, mimosa-friendly OG Kush to super-savory Trainwreck to surprisingly absinthe-ready Sour Diesel. Here, the expert and writer talks about the most special spirits, the best bars in the country and why cannabis and cocktails are a brilliant match.
What brought you to what you’re doing today?
It's a convoluted tale with five failures, including bankruptcy and the loss of my house. I had no one to fall back on but myself, so I plugged on. I’d always wanted to work in the restaurant business, and one of my earlier memories is when I’d moved to York Harbor, Maine from New Jersey. I walked up to the little bed and breakfast up the street, knocked on the door, asked for the chef and said, "I want to become a chef." He pointed to the pot sink and said, "I don't need any cooks, and I don't need a dishwasher, but I need someone to clean toilets, empty trashcans and do the pots and pans." That's what I did for several months.
I also worked nights and weekends in wine stores and gourmet shops, but for 20 years, as of 1992, I worked in private banking. It was incredibly soul-sucking, but I had one boss who made it all worthwhile because his wife runs a literary magazine named The Wild River Review. The founder, Joy E. Stocke, basically said, "What would you like to be when you grow up? Let's see what you can write."
How did your kind of persona as a Cocktail Whisperer come to be?
When I left banking, I had a pension and got a package. I literally had two years in the bank, so I worked for free for two years for a magazine called Served Raw, writing about wine and food for them. It was like, “Who’s this idiot who works for free?” I had this natural affinity for writing about cocktails probably because I was trained as a saucier. I understood flavor and what things go together—that’s truly an art. A lot of it has to do with growing up in Europe and going to places like Brazil and Africa where food’s not microwaved. I have a very slow-food approach to cocktails, as well, and my cocktails are very simple. My stuff is unique because it just speaks clearly to flavor and passion.
Do you have a favorite spirit?
I’m a rum guy. My family had a yacht they kept down by the British Virgin Islands, and there was always rum around. It wasn't just garbage rum. It was good-quality rum that would inspire you to sip, contemplate and connect yourself with every sailor that’d been out on the sea. The second you sip rum when you're out on a boat, you're connected with them. I believe the best way of drinking rum is with salt in your nose because it makes it taste different. Once you've done that, you're always a sailor. Even if you sit behind an armchair and look at sailing movies on the Internet, still, you're a sailor. Rum is one of those universal things, so I love it.
I also love bourbon and rye. I love the authenticity of it. I'm actually a greater fan of rye whiskey than I am bourbon whiskey. Bourbon whiskey is very corn-heavy, but rye is very rustic. It makes me feel like I'm actually tasting something instead of sugar.
You travel a lot. What’s a place you been where the cocktails have surprised you?
I taught a master class at the Moscow Bar Show in Russia. It was such an honor to be there. In Russian schools, they don’t teach any other foreign language but English, and there’s a reason why. No matter what you see on the news, Russians really love American culture. I realized they have an incredible rum and whiskey culture. We believe they just have a vodka culture, but they just drink it as a shot. When someone comes over to the house, you have a shot of vodka. When they leave, you have five. But when you go out, it’s to a mixology bar. They love classic drinks, and the bartenders wear full leather aprons and have handlebar mustaches and tattoos. The tattoo culture there is far beyond what we see here in the United States.
Where does cannabis come into the equation for you?
I've smoked weed since I was 13. My uncle was a hippie with hair down to his waist. There was a lot of rock ‘n’ roll on our property, lots of healing going on when I was growing up. Not real healing, but placebo healing, and there was a lot of weed smoking. I never stopped. I'd rather smoke a joint than drink. Alcohol and me are not necessarily a good fit, even though I know how to make a well-balanced cocktail. I'm much happier smoking grass.
Did your appreciation of cannabis inspire you to meld it with cocktails?
No, not at all. I’d already written three books: Apothecary Cocktails, Whiskey Cocktails and Bitters and Shrubs Syrup Cocktails. I didn't want to write just another book, and the process was in my mind because of apothecary cocktails. The only ingredient I’d missed out on was cannabis. When I’d spoken to my editors about it, they said, “No, absolutely not. America’s not ready for that.” It was 2013. Still, we weren’t ready for it yet.
I had been invited to BookCon, a big convention for authors. The CEO of the publishing house I write for was there. We said hello, and I glanced over his shoulder as he was turning and saw a book on marijuana horticulture and cultivation. I said, "I would love to write a book on cannabis cocktails." He said, “Well, Warren, if you could get me a proposal in three days, I’m not guaranteeing anything, but we’ll see.” I wrote the book in three and a half weeks.
We know cannabis has healing and medicating properties. When it comes to cocktails, does it have the same effect or is there a big difference?
There’s absolutely a difference. They play really nicely together, first off. You don't have those effects like when you drink 10 shots of tequila and smoke a joint and the room starts spinning. It's not like that at all. They offset each other. What I find chemically, everyone is different. It's not like with pharmaceutical drugs where if I take something, it's going to be the same for you as it’s the same for someone else. Making a cocktail with cannabis is very difficult in the sense that what may not affect you may affect the person next to you completely differently. You have to be cautious of that.
I use what I call the Thai food principal. You start ordering your Thai food medium-spicy, and you can always go up from there. You can't order it hot and say, "Oh, it's too hot. Take it away." It will always be hot. That's how I look at my cannabis cocktails. I always start small, start slow and never have more than one cocktail per hour.
The experience of drinking a cannabis cocktail is completely different from, say, smoking a joint. It's not just a head high or upper body high. It affects your entire body, your entire chi, if you will. You hear things differently depending on the strain you use. I just think it's much more potent, and it offers something you don't get when you smoke pot out of a bong or even in a pipe.
How do you feel about edibles?
I'm not into sweets. What's this thing with sweets? Why is everything sweet?
Do you have a cocktail recipe that has a special place in your heart?
There is a drink and it doesn't even belong to me, but it’s something that really taught me a lesson. I learned how to do this cocktail at Secreto Lounge, a bar out in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They do a smoked sage margarita. The technique is so wild it blew my mind wide open. Basically, you take a piece of fresh sage and light it on fire, then capture that smoke in a Boston shaker, that metal tin. You hold the metal tin over the burning sage and fill that tin with sage smoke. Add about an ounce of lemon juice and quarter ounce of lime juice and a little bit of Grand Marnier. Then I use a drop or two of agave syrup and really good tequila. Shake it up. I always use a salted rim on margaritas because I think the combination of salt and citrus makes it really lip-smacking.
If I was going to make it into a THC-infused drink, I’d take the tequila, or maybe even mezcal, and fuse it with a strain of cannabis that would be a good match for the sage.
You point out in your book that different strains should be paired with certain flavors.
I approached it like I do tasting notes for whiskey. When you read them, it's kind of funny. Keep whiskey in mind when you're reading them.
Do you have any favorite bars you like to go to when you get the opportunity?
In San Francisco, I love Smuggler's Cove. It's a tiki bar on steroids. In Brooklyn, I'm a real fan of Maison Premiere. It's like being in New Orleans. I love going to Dutch Kills in Long Island City. They have an incredible ice program. They have 100 pound cubes of ice that they break down into individual cubes. Ice is one of the most important features of a craft cocktail because if it tastes like garlic, you may as well throw out the drink. There’s Longitude in Oakland. It's dreamy there. In Miami, I'm a huge fan of the Broken Shaker, which is in the Freehand Hotel, a combination of a hostel and hotel. It's very laidback. Miami can be very intense and very uptight. This is anything but.
Is there anything else you want us to know about you?
I'm the luckiest guy in the world because I'm able to do what I love. It's a lot of fun and hard work, but I don't stop because I enjoy it. I enjoy the hard work.