Embracing the Dark Side: Mixologists Say Black Is the New Hot in Cocktails

By Amy Paturel

When Leigh Lacap, lead bartender at Campfire restaurant in Carlsbad, California north of San Diego, walked into a Venice Beach hot spot for a little inspiration, he was struck by a glass of jet-black elixir gliding through the dining room on a tray. The “midnight margarita” was the first time Lacap had seen a pitch-black cocktail.

“It was so sexy and exotic, I immediately hit the bar and asked the bartender, HOW?!” Lacap says. The surprising answer: activated charcoal.

Activated charcoal comes from burning certain kinds of wood – bamboo, birch, balsam and poplar are among the most popular – at very high temperatures. The particles remaining are almost pure carbon, giving it the ability to suck up moisture and chemicals.

Activated charcoal debuted on the health-food circuit as an ingredient in fresh-pressed juices and smoothies, particularly of the detox variety. More recently, it has been cropping up in cocktails for its uncanny ability to transform even simple cocktails into conversation-starters.

Lacap drops small amounts of activated charcoal into tequila and uses it to color salts and garnishes such as coconut flakes to mimic ash. “Charcoal adds mystery and whimsy. It’s shocking and exciting. And, it makes a big impact with a little dusting,” says Lacap. “You can shake it into cocktails a la minute and color syrups with it.” The cocktail tastes like a classic, but its appearance is radically different.

Working with charcoal isn’t reserved for trained mixologists. Home bartenders, too, can get in on the action. Just take herbs and vegetables that are past their prime, such as thyme, leeks and parsley, and burn them beyond recognition, suggests Jacob Verstegen, executive chef at the LondonHouse Chicago restaurant. Then drop a bit of the resulting powder into your favorite libation. Or take an easier route and purchase a bag of food-grade activated charcoal at a specialty food store or on Amazon.com.

Lacap did add this important note of caution:

“I would emphasize using small amounts of activated charcoal to ensure it doesn’t cause any complications by nulling the effectiveness of certain medications,” he says. “We used eight grams of activated charcoal per liter of alcohol to ensure each cocktail contains way below any kind of medicinal dosage of charcoal.”

Besides, it won’t take more than a tiny dusting to take your favorite cocktail to the Dark Side.

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