Just in time for high summer — and even higher temperatures — our Elite Beverage Tasting Squad, a cadre of cannabis consuming co-workers and friends, is at it again after forming last year to taste-test some pot-packed, palate-pleasing potables worthy of picking up and icing down.
The big takeaway this time around? What a difference a year makes! Last summer, the squad sipped, swirled and spit its way through 17 beverages and found it challenging to pick five good-tasting ones from a sea of weedy White Claw wannabes.
This time, of the 18 drink options representing a dozen brands, the off-putting weediness of last year's drinkable contenders was largely absent. And in the rare instances where it was noticeable this year, the taste of cannabis seemed to lean into — instead of detract from — the overall flavor profile of the beverage.
Another noticeable difference is this: the infused beverage market appears to be moving away from putting all its eggs in one fruity seltzer basket. There are still plenty of those out there. (For example, Wynk's juicy mango and black cherry fizz seltzers were in the mix this season. They were announced as gold and bronze medal winners, respectively, in the water/sparking water/seltzer category at the inaugural L.A.-based High Spirits Awards.)
Replacing those White Claw wannabes in the market is a variety of tasty beverages. There are high-performance sports drinks — yes, you read that correctly — like the one recently launched by L.A.-based Offfield that throws a dose of the amino acid L-theanine in alongside THC, CBD and CBG.
There are also concoctions designed to help you recover from a night of partying; Surplus' Rally beverage thinks serving up a mix of vitamins and electrolytes alongside THC and CBD will do the trick. (The line also includes versions tweaked to help you get out on the dance floor, Strobe, or get a good night's sleep, Knockout.) There's even an infused apple cider (Malus' Granny Smith OG, which took home a platinum medal for best cannabis cider at the High Spirits Awards), that we're keeping on our radar when we're in the mood for an autumnal-tasting buzz.
Spoiler alert: While each of these found some favor with members of this year's Elite Beverage Tasting Squad), none ultimately made it to our hard-fought favorite five.
The ones highlighted here, though, are a different story.
In addition to the expected ingredient (that'd be THC, which in the drinks below range from 5 to 10 milligrams per serving), they all kick things up a notch in the palate-pleasing department, and that means you'll be bringing a little something extra to your next summer soiree.
Just remember, if you're stepping into the deep end of the potent potable pool for the first time in awhile, it's better to start low (milligram-wise) and go slow (i.e., pace yourself). That's because you can always take more, but you can't take less. After all, who wants to end up one of the hot summer's hot messes?
5. Incognito Spritz Cucumber/Mint/Lemonade
The most recently launched libation on the testing table (it dropped at its first L.A.-area dispensary just days before our group of testers convened), Incognito is named for the fact, as one of the company founders explained to me, that it's envisioned as a utility player of sorts. That means its true identity is heightened with a masquerade of mixers, garnishes and the like. "We want it to be a cocktail-like experience," said Incognito's director of formulation, Lauren Barrett. (What would really make it a cocktail-like? Adding alcohol. They didn't say that, but if cross-fading is your jam, this might be your go-to summer refresher.)
Of the two flavors we put to the test, the blend of cucumber, mint and lemonade took a slight edge over the mango-meets-prickly pear combination (a third flavor, grapefruit blossom, launched too late to include), though both earned high marks from the squad.
Comments on the cucumber concoction included: "Refreshing crisp and light," "light, sweet, flowery smell — minty water," "tastes like organic toothpaste — but still good and refreshing" and "I'd drink this on a hot sunny day to feel like I'm on the top of a snowy mountain peak."
More than a couple of testers thought that the trio of flavors could have played nicer: "Not citrus-y enough — too much cucumber," one commented. "It needs to commit to just one," wrote another. "I wish it was just cucumber or just lemonade. ... tastes like an Erewhon off-brand health drink."
The spicy mango prickly pear version was praised — and showered with exclamation points — for its spice-forward flavor. Tasting notes included: "Fizzy in a spicy, and carbonated way that I like ... That's a summer drink!," "That's spicy!" and "Little bit of spice (not spicy), little bit of mango, little bit of pear [and] a lot of fizz."
On a side note: While our focus was on what was in the cans, Incognito gets honorable mention for packaging that slyly hammers home its tag line "(sneaky good") in a way a true a cannathusiast will appreciate: Stare at the can long enough (I did), and you'll realize there's a face peering out of the abstract art design right back at you.
$8 per can, 5 milligram THC, 5 milligram CBD and 20 to 40 calories (depending on flavor) per 12-ounce serving. Flavors include cucumber/mint/lemonade, spicy mango/prickly pear and grapefruit blossom. Currently available at the Woods dispensary in West Hollywood and via the Amuse delivery service (in some parts of California) with additional stockists coming soon. drinkincognito.com.
4. Olala Mango Cannabis-Infused Craft Soda
Inspired by the Hawaiian islands (according to the back of the bottle, Olala is pronounced oh-lah-lah and means "sun-kissed" in Hawaiian), this tropical-themed craft soda made with natural fruit juices is heavy on the carbonation and pure cane sugar, which made it an instant hit with the soda-drinking demographic at the table. Yet oddly, although the flavor tasted by the the squad was mango — there are four flavors in all — so many testers referenced the taste of orange cream soda that I momentarily worried I'd accidentally mixed in a similarly colored bottle of that flavor. (I hadn't.)
"Orange cream soda with a suuuper light aftertaste of weed. I really like this and think it has a great amount of sweetness. (Good for soda drinkers.)," one squadster wrote. "Reminiscent of [a] mango Italian soda summer creamcicle," opined another. "Great mango flavor (I love sweetness!)," noted a third, adding that the calorie count (150 per bottle) was in line with a bottle of beer.
The sugar rush wasn't a universal hit though. "I could definitely casually drink this in a park, at a picnic [or a] cookout," one of the tasters said. "[I] couldn't do more than one though — too sweet. "
With a solid fourth-place finish, there was no question about this beverage's popularity with the squad. The only remaining question then is whether Olala's orange cream flavor is out there giving freshly harvested mango vibes.
$7 each; 10 milligram THC and 150 calories per 11.2-ounce bottle ($15 for 100-milligram bottles). Additional flavors include orange cream, guava and blue raspberry. Find a list of stocking dispensaries and additional information available at olalafresh.net.
3. Sunstone Spritz*
Sunstone's mad-refreshing sparking beverages, which launched in April, earn a spot on our favorite-five list — with an asterisk. For two reasons: First and most important, because, as of this writing, it can be ordered only online for delivery within Santa Barbara County. Sunstone Winery President Teddy Cabugos, who is overseeing the brand's expansion into nonalcoholic, THC-infused beverages (as a separate Sunstone Cannabis entity), hopes that L.A.-area deliveries will be a reality within the next six months. (In the meantime, aspiring spritz sippers are encouraged to contact him through the company website — where you can also sign up for availability updates. (Or you can do what I did and arrange for someone who is S.B.-bound to score some while there.)
The second reason for the asterisk? Three of the four flavors (peach-passion fruit, watermelon and grapefruit orange — sorry, pineapple coconut) proved so popular with the collective palates that the only way to avoid an all-out, table-flipping taste-tester mutiny was to bestow third-place accolades on the lot of them. "A nice family of drinks," one taste tester phrased it.
Perhaps that's because Cabugos and his team are approaching the craft cannabis beverage space with the terroir mind-set of winemakers. "Santa Barbara already grows some of the best grapes in the world and some of the best outdoor cannabis in the world," Cabugos told The Times, explaining that the drinks are made with 100% all-natural ingredients and infused with single-origin, full-spectrum, sun-grown cannabis rosin from Santa Barbara County. That might sound impressive to a weed head, but what did our squad have to say?
The peach-passionfruit flavor earned high marks for "tast[ing] like a Haribo peach gummy," one taster wrote, adding, "Good mixer vibe." "Peach forward — and not unhappy with that," noted another. A third described it as "punching my tongue with pungent fruit passion." However, a few noted an off-putting sour note in the mix.
The watermelon flavor earned accolades too. Comments included: "Impressive job with the watermelon flavor. This could have been terrible, but I quite like it as a summer drink!" and "Not bad as far as watermelon goes. I bet if you put that in a hummingbird feeder, it would slow a hummingbird down!" (This is where I tell you — unequivocally — not to put anything in a hummingbird feeder other than hummingbird-appropriate nectar.) One creative commentator drew an exploding barrel labeled weed with pieces of candy flying into the air. (Translation: "An intense fusion of cannabis, carbonation and candy.")
$99.95 per 12-pack, 5 milligram THC and 20 to 40 calories (depending on the flavor) per 12-ounce can. Flavors include peach-passion fruit, watermelon, grapefruit orange and pineapple coconut. Ordering details and additional information at sunstonecannabis.com.
2. Klaus Mezzrole
"I've spent the better part of 30 years working towards this goal," master mixologist Warren "the Cocktail Whisperer" Bobrow wrote in an email to The Times. He was referring to a curious, complex, cannabis-infused (and nonalcoholic) combination of ginger, lime and rice vinegar that launched last year. Bobrow added that the mix of flavors was "originally influenced by the classic Ti Punch from St. Barts. The addition of the ginger was to settle the gut when sailing a yacht in choppy seas." I found Bobrow's origin story amusing because the first thing I thought of when I first tasted this intriguing elixir was the thirst-quenching switchel (a.k.a. haymaker's punch) that Vermont farmers used to swig out of gallon jugs in the heat of the summer hay fields. (Yes, I'm a former Vermonter kickin' it in SoCal.)
Whatever the historical roots (some think the New England beverage actually may have originated in the Caribbean), one thing is clear: Bobrow's three-decade quest has paid off handsomely. From the backpacking gnome on the swirly colored can (that'd be Klaus) to the artisanal ingredients inside (including Pickett's ginger beer syrup and lime purée sourced from France), everything about this beverage was a hit with the backyard bunch.
"Yummy, tastes like ginger beer, lover the burn," wrote one of the testers. "It's the only one that doesn't taste like it needs something." "Yummy ginger shot," jotted another. "Reminds me of a good Moscow mule," mused a third. "Woo-hoo! Spicy, silly, crazy," noted a fourth. "Smells like Pine-Sol — but I'm allowed to drink it!"
"Cool can branding — my boy Klaus!" said one squadster, giving a shout-out to the tiny gnomic namesake before turning to its contents. "Extremely pointy, very unique taste ... very specifically evoking the taste of melted Luigi's Italian ice. I love the ginger taste. Burns/tingles my mouth." Someone else simply scribbled a cartoon heart.
Although you should take our word for it, you don't have to; two weeks after it landed in our Top 2 came word that Bobrow's brew had scored a gold medal at the above-mentioned High Spirits Awards in the nonalcoholic, ready-to-drink cocktail category — along with our top pick below.
$48 per four-pack, 5 milligram THC and 16 calories per 8-ounce can. Additional information and ordering details (currently available via delivery-only in the L.A. area) at drinkklaus.com.
1. Fable Into the Woods
The smell of a walk in the woods on a wet day might seem strange inspiration for a flavor profile (unless you're high, perhaps), but that's what the folks at Fable were aiming for by combining peaches, pine and rosemary to come up with Into the Woods, a curious, herbaceous beverage that seems to be acknowledging — or even leaning into, instead of trying to mask — the weedy taste of most THC-infused drinks. It's an approach that earned the beverage high marks and top honors with this season's squad.
"Rosemary garden smell, tastes like an earthy herbal potion," one squadster remarked. "Reminds me of a small batch artisanal spirit," wrote another. "It's definitely rosemary forward with pine riding shotgun. Sorry about that, stone fruit. I know you're in there." A third taste-tester remarked that the smell reminded him of those pine-tree-shaped car air fresheners, adding: "I like this. It's fresh — and not too sweet."
Other observations included: "Love the way it smells. A great drink for people who don't like sweet ones. I love that the weed burp tastes like Christmas." "Kombucha taste, I prefer sweeter ones, but this is good for a change-up," wrote the guy who loved the Olala mango soda. "[S]mells like a mulled wine — very fall-esque [and] pretty different for a weed drink. Really refreshing and I'd drink it a lot because of the rosemary. It's a welcome flavor." And "It has a lush green flavor, like licking fresh-cut grass but in the loveliest of ways."
Every winner has its detractors, and our top pick was no exception, with one of the taster's simply commenting "NOPE — [this tastes like a] Hogwarts drink."
As noted, this libation landed a gold medal at the inaugural High Spirits Awards, as did another flavor in the Fable stable; a blend of hibiscus, ginger and mint called Night Flight. Another, Best Zest (citrus, pepper and spice), earned top marks (a platinum medal) in the nonalcoholic, ready-to-drink cocktail category. Which means Fable founders Kristin and Benjamin Kennedy must be on to something. So here's to them — and wetting our whistle with that wet walk in the woods.
$28 per four-pack; 7 milligram THC and 3 milligram CBD and 50 calories per 10-ounce can. Find a list of stocking dispensaries for all three flavors and order online at drinkfable.com.