Drink and be merry

Cannabis-infused beverages hit the local market

Bartender Conor McCoy mixes up a “Silly Wabbit” terpine cocktail at 1864 Tavern.

Bartender Conor McCoy mixes up a “Silly Wabbit” terpine cocktail at 1864 Tavern.

Photo/Luka Starmer

Earlier this fall I received a direct message inviting me to a product release party for a cannabis something-or-other. They said they read my debaucherous article from the Reno Booze & Review Nightlife Guide, and that’s why they were putting me on the guest list.

“If you’re looking to pitch a story about your product, forward it to my editor,” I wrote back. It was like 6 a.m., and I was in the airport not feeling interested in commercial solicitation. I’m not that into weed, either.

They said it wasn’t a pitch, just a cordial invitation. If you want the short version of this story, I went to the party and got pleasantly stoned. And here I am writing the story after all.

The messages were from a brand called The Happiest Hour. They consider their products to be “craft cannabis beverages.” They’re flavored drinks with THC in them. They’re colorful apothecary bottles fashioned next to dainty-looking summery cocktails like margaritas and daiquiris. The labels are hipster vintage.

Liquid happiness

The company is run by three siblings: Tiffany English, Josh Damon and Aaron Damon. They describe themselves as seventh-generation Nevadans and third-generation cocktail experts. Their grandfather started what is now Damon Industries—a company that sells syrups and juice concentrates to bars and restaurants. The Sparks-based family business has been around since the mid-1900s.

According to Josh, they’ve supplied the signature Bloody Mary mix to the Bucket of Blood in Virginia City for decades.

“We’ve spent our life making spirits taste good, so we just applied that same knowledge to make cannabis taste good,” he said.

Josh and Tiffany explained that they were eyeing the cannabis industry in Nevada since before the state allowed recreational use of the substance back in 2017. They designed an array of mixers typically made to help booze go down easy: add some sweetness or some sour, add some citrus and make it colorful. Then add THC. They developed seven weed-infused products in all.

Except they don’t actually have anything to do with the weed part of their own product. The Happiest Hour simply mixes the yummy part and hands it off to Nevada Botanical Science, a Reno-based cannabis laboratory that handles all of their cultivation, production and packaging. Nevada Botanical also distributes the final product to local dispensaries.

Tiffany explained that since their company deals with alcohol distribution, too, that means they’re federally regulated. Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule-One narcotic, they don’t even want to touch the plants. The Happiest Hour doesn’t even promote a website, and they don’t deal with any of the sales to the consumer. They can avoid the risk of confrontation from the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency while still benefiting from an industry that generated $424.9 million in taxable sales in Nevada in 2018, according to a fact sheet generated by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau.

For now, The Happiest Hour products are sold exclusively at three Reno dispensaries: Silver State Relief, Sierra Well and Green Cross Farmacy. They retail for $28 for a slender plastic bottle containing 100mg of THC. Shrink wrapped to the childproof cap is a one-ounce dosing capsule. The suggested serving size on the back of the bottle is 1.25 ounces, so you probably shouldn’t drink the whole thing, no matter how sugary it tastes.

I like this self-dosing method, personally. Like I said earlier, I don’t do a bunch of weed. I feel like it takes away my dance moves and makes me forget the punch line to the longwinded joke I shouldn’t have started telling in the first place. But that’s me. This little cocktail lets anyone adjust their dose to their own tolerance.

I should clarify. It’s not that I don’t partake. I’m just pretty light on consumption and relegate getting stoned to good existential conversations or deep Netflix binges. It’s not an everyday thing for me, but I get it.

When I last went to a dispensary, I asked one of the budtenders if there were other cannabis cocktail products on the shelves. He said the closest thing was a tasteless odorless THC powder someone could mix into drinks. He said as far as he could tell, the majority of people weren’t interested in drinking their marijuana. But by contrast, the dispensary had a variety of edible weed products and candies to choose from.

“In more developed markets like Denver and California, there’s always been cannabis drinks,” said Anthony Lee, a weed consultant known for his brand Reno As Fuck. “[In Nevada] the cannabis movement in drink form hasn’t really taken off yet, but it will.”

Lee said that THC absorbs quicker as a liquid than as an edible, and it hits harder and lasts longer, giving people more bang for their buck. He doesn’t think that cannabis drinks will ever be the biggest category in the legal weed market, but it’s creating opportunities for brands like The Happiest Hour.

The way Josh Damon tells it, drinkable cannabis might be a safe bet for out-of-towners wanting to get high while visiting.

“People leave the airport, they go to a dispensary, they load up on legal recreational cannabis—then they have nowhere to consume it,” he said. “They can’t consume it on the street. They can’t consume it in the Uber. They can’t consume it in the hotel room, so where are they going to go?”

Drinking it is subtler than smoking, and Tiffany reminded me that vaping weed is having a bad PR moment right now, with countless news reports warning of vaping-related illnesses.

Tiffany also sees her product as great for people at parties who don’t drink alcohol, but still want something more potent and flavorful than a La Croix.

“Because when you don’t drink alcohol, people forget that other beverages exist, and they don’t know what to give you,” she said. “It’s fun to have something like this to offer people so they just feel like they’re part of the party and they’re not excluded.”

Also worth noting, the back of the bottle of blood orange margarita recipe recommends mixing the cocktail with tequila. That’s a surefire way to marble up a few psychotropic chemicals inside you at once.

Pass the bar

In the last year or so, the Reno News & Review, the Reno Gazette Journal and Edible Reno Tahoe all published stories about CBD-infused cocktails served at various bars and cafés in Reno.

CBD is short for cannabidiol. It’s a hemp derivative that doesn’t cause intoxication, but it may improve mood. It could be anti-inflammatory, among a slew of other wellness promoting factors. I hope that every alleged positive health benefit of the stuff proves irrefutably true, but it remains federally banned in food and beverages by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

1864 Tavern on California Avenue is one watering hole that hopped on the CBD train. Owner and mixologist Dillon Evans saw an opportunity to add another element to their cocktail program. They mix CBD terpenes or aromatics into tequila or gin drinks called Silly Wabbit and the Lazy Dazey. According to Evans, they treat the terpenes like a bitters—no more than two dashes. It slightly changes the flavor profiles of the cocktail while offering the alleged medicinal benefits of CBD. You definitely don’t get high from these things, but they’re fancy and complex.

“It’s something we’re known for, and it’s still something that people come in and order daily,” he said. “We have a lot of people who come in here religiously who do CBD at home and they like CBD in their cocktail.”

However, last spring the Washoe County Health District caught wind that non-dispensary establishments were selling CBD products, be it cocktails or chocolate and other stuff. They decided to take a stance, and that stance is to follow the precedent set forth by the FDA.

“Our goal is to protect the public in Washoe County from products that aren’t approved or aren’t proving to be safe,” said Amber English, environmental health specialist supervisor for the county (no relation to Tiffany English). “Once we have some guidelines that tell us whether or not it’s a safe product, we’d be much more comfortable to allow CBD.”

To mitigate confusion and educate businesses into cooperating with county codes, English said the department sent out informational postcards, posted on social media, and updated their website to include a detailed FAQ sheet clarifying what’s legal in Washoe County. They also visited local businesses to inspect the CBD products.

She said consequences for not complying could be as severe as issuing a citation or suspending a food and beverage permit for that establishment. At this time, the county has yet to issue any citations.

Included in the gentle crackdown was 1864 Tavern. Evans said they visited and asked them to stop selling the CBD products until they could prove without a reasonable doubt that the products were FDA approved.

“We lucked out because we get our terpenes from Portland,” said Evans. “The company that does our terpenes does other food items that aren’t CBD or THC related so they have an FDA person onsite,” he said. “It makes the whole umbrella FDA approved.” Within two weeks, they felt assured that they were compliant and began offering the CBD cocktails again. However, he said they took down the sign advertising them.

Clouds of change

Over in California, things are starting to change. There’s some hype about a few places in West Hollywood where patrons can openly smoke pot, most notoriously a place called Lowells Café.

“It’s super popular,” said Anthony Lee. “There’s a fat line out of the door.” He says it will likely be years before we see anything quite like this in Reno.

Apparently guests can order pre-rolled joints and other marijuana products and paraphernalia to their table from a server.

Rolling Stone Magazine calls the opening of these first consumption lounges “a moment in weed history.”

“I definitely could see our products there,” said Tiffany. “Our lavender lemonade product—I definitely could see people sipping on that on a nice afternoon in Hollywood.”

Tiffany and Josh are optimistic consumption lounges like Lowell’s Café will make their way into Nevada in the near future. In fact, a similar establishment already exists in the state. It’s called the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace owned and operated by the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. The place opened up in October, and according to the Las Vegas Sun, it’s self-regulated through the Las Vegas Paiute Cannabis Authority. This exempts it from oversight from the State of Nevada.

Just like Lowell’s Café, customers can order bong rips and hang out.

According to Brian Melendez, a member of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and host of the podcast Coffee With An Indian, NuWu Cannabis has been interfacing with tribes in Northern Nevada. He explained that they recently included him in a meeting about the prospect of opening a location here.

“They are talking about their strategies and insights in the Vegas market,” said Melendez. “I think they were presenting it to the people like, ’Hey, we’re doing all these awesome things down there, maybe we can do awesome things up there, too.’” At this time, the Reno Sparks Indian Colony doesn’t have a cannabis dispensary.

He said from what he can tell, tribal people still have mixed feelings about bringing a venture like that here, but he thinks it’s a good idea from a business standpoint.

Unsurprisingly, politics are intermixed in the tribal cannabis dialogue, too.

According to an August 2019 edition of the Camp News, the newsletter published by the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, Tribal Chairman Arlan Melendez is negotiating a cannabis agreement with the State of Nevada. According to Melendez’s letter to the office of the chairman, “Governor Sisolak has delegated the Nevada State Department of Taxation to negotiate with Tribes. The process has been extremely slow as the taxation department is involved in a lawsuit initiated by people who claim that the State did not issue cannabis licenses in a fair manner.”

Party time

For now, public weed consumption is off limits in Nevada; we covered that. But there’s one solid loophole for allowing people to enjoy fancy weed cocktails in trendy establishments in Reno. To do this, Tiffany and her brothers reserved the whole bar and outdoor enclosure at The Jesse on Fourth Street for a private party. I needed to prove my name was on the guest list in order to get past the abnormally relaxed and light spirited bouncers at the door. Little trails of marijuana smoke lifted from the Jesse’s fashionable back patio. There were platters of joints and buds on display around newly stylized décor of the boutique hotel bar. Bartenders freely poured exact copies of the super appealing cocktails that I saw from the Instagram posts. There was a photo booth printing souvenir pics of the guests. Estella, the high-end taco joint attached to The Jesse, was slinging hearty tacos to hungry people. It had to be as hip and weed-friendly as anything going on in West Hollywood that night.

Sure, it’s not surprising to see someone getting away with a smoking a sneaky joint on the edge of the patio of a local bar. But it’s totally different when getting high is the whole point of the event.

I ordered a margarita, hold the tequila. I asked the bartender to keep it light, maybe like three milligrams of THC, if he would.

It was nice to not have to wait too long between sipping and feeling a slight twist on my perception. It seemed to work about as quickly as the early signs of an alcohol buzz where people begin agreeing with each other more enthusiastically. I know from past experimentation that edibles can stay dormant inside you just long enough to be suspicious that they’re not going to work. Then they surprise you with five hours of squinty-eyed absurdist laughing fits.

I hung out at the party until I began getting amnesia during the good parts of my stories. (I wish that wasn’t my telltale indication of being stoned.) I made it home safely, eager to flip on Netflix.

I’m all for drinking cannabis. Until it’s available in cool places, I’ll pop open something like The Happiest Hour for guests during my own happy hours in my kitchen. It’s like a THC condiment for your beverage. For now, it’s currently sitting in the door of my fridge, nicely nestled between two half-finished bottles of squeezable mustard.