From ashes to cocktails: What’s activated charcoal doing in our drinks?

World Best Bar

Apr 25, 2018

Activated charcoal is just about everywhere at the moment. You’ll find it in your smoothies, your pizzas, your bagels and even in your soft-serve ice cream. There’s just something about the colour black that seems to have gripped the public imagination. Perhaps it acts as a goth-like antidote to the overtly saccharine trends of rainbows, mermaids and unicorns that have also been gracing our tables and Instagram feeds this past year? Whatever the reason, this fringe ‘health food’ supplement has most definitely gone mainstream and considering it has now breached the final frontier of total social absorption – the magical world of mixology – we decided it was time to take a closer look at just what this carbonic compound has going for (and against) it.

So, what is it? Before you reach into the coals of last night’s fire to muddle yourself up an inky tipple, you should know that this specific brand of black gold is by no means commonplace. Activated charcoal is a form of carbon that has been specially processed to have shed loads of very tiny, low-volume pores. The reason for this is that it greatly increases the surface area that’s available for both adsorption (for those struggling to remember secondary school chemistry, this is a process in which molecules and such are bonded to the surface of the bulk rather than absorbed into it) and chemical reactions. Due to the high degree of microporosity (you can pay me later) in activated charcoal, just one gram has a surface area of more than 3,000m2 – or, like I said before, absolutely shed loads! This is useful because it allows each molecule of charcoal to adsorb thousands of times its own weight from substances in liquid, solid or gas form.


And what is it good for? Given its ultra-adsorbent qualities, activated charcoal is often used in medical procedures as a way of treating cases of poisoning and drug overdose following oral ingestion. In naturopathic and holistic circles, it’s marketed as a way to ‘detox’ the body and rid it of unwanted toxins. In the culinary world, or, more specific to this article, the cocktail world, its black colour makes things look uber-cool?


In cocktail bars, mixologists will often use the over-the-counter capsules found in health food stores that contain a very fine powder form of the charcoal. If the quality of the charcoal is good and the mixologist is skilled then the magic ingredient shouldn’t impart any flavour or texture to the drink, although some claim that it has a vaguely smokey taste. If, however, the charcoal is not properly incorporated into the drink, it can leave an unpleasant gritty feeling in one’s mouth.


The added benefit of using charcoal over other blackening ingredients in cocktail recipes is its flavour neutrality, as the more traditional use of squid ink lends a distinctly minerally, briny taste and muddled blueberries will affect the acidity balance of whatever is being made. This means that you can create anything you wish and make it the colour of Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart without compromising on flavour.



Anything else we should know? Not a lot of people drink cocktails to improve their ‘good health’ – they simply toast to it – so the dubious claims made by health gurus that charcoal is a panacea for all that ails you is fairly irrelevant. However, it’s probably worth mentioning that charcoal itself can’t distinguish what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you, it’s just mightily adsorbent. So, if you make a habit of ingesting it on a regular basis, you might be doing yourself a disservice, as it won’t just be ridding you of unwanted toxins but also valuable nutrients and minerals. It’s for this reason that health professionals have urged the public to steer clear of the black stuff before and after meals so that all the macro- and micronutrients in that Buddha bowl and kale smoothie you’ve just finished might actually do you some good.


Cool facts – but I came here to drink! Alright, we get it, we’re not your collective mothers and we like an opaque drink as much as the next booze connoisseur. So you want to know what we recommend and where we recommend it?


Here you go:

  • The Smoky Charcoal Old Fashioned from Bull In A China Shop, Shoreditch – made from a delicious mix of elegant, single malt Nikka whisky, chamomile syrup, coconut charcoal and bitters.
  • Black Tai from Stripsteak by Michael Mina, Waikiki – a nod to the tropical island’s ubiquitous Mai Tai cocktail. This twist is made with Appleton Estate VX Rum, lime juice, black sesame orgeat syrup, Pierre Ferrand Orange Curaçao, brown sugar syrup, charcoal (obvs) and a sprig of mint.
  • Fade To Black from David Burke Kitchen, New York – made with charcoal-infused Starr Ultra Superior Light rum, ginger, lemon, lime, a shot of flaming Chartreuse and a garnish of rosemary.
  • At the end of the day, the use of activated charcoal in cocktails is purely aesthetic; but if you fancy a twist on a classic and want to feel as if you’re sipping drinks in your own personal film Noir, then this can be a really fun ingredient to play around with.


Photo by @oldhickorywhiskeybar on Instagram

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