Cocktail caution

The dangers of mixing drinks at home
Image design by Josh Flanigan

Poisoning, interfering with your medications, ingesting dangerous pesticides, permanent bodily harm, severe burns, dizziness, and making you sick. Sounds like someone is out to get you, right? Wrong. The truth is, you’ve done this to yourself. In this edition’s column, and in honor of Halloween, we will discuss the many ways that home bartending can go very, very wrong.

You’ve been warned.

I have long encouraged others to explore bartending at home. Making your own drinks is the best way to understand beverage crafting and how different flavors interact with each other. Halloween is an especially DIY holiday, with sinister and other-worldly influences. Black, red, and unnaturally colored cocktails often make a spooky impact to wow guests. The problem is, many ingredients and techniques used in cocktails, when not applied correctly, can be dangerous.

In this digital age and well beyond the revival of craft cocktails, most known ingredients and processes have already been widely explored. A general rule of thumb, with few exceptions, is that if an ingredient is not commonly used, consumed, or regulated, there may be a reason for that.

When making your potions, one way to ensure your safety and that of your guests is to make a menu listing the ingredients in your drinks. Always be transparent about what you are serving so that your guests are aware of what is in your concoctions. In a smaller group, try to announce potential risks before serving your drinks. Most of your guests will be impressed and grateful, not put out, by your attentiveness. Any kind of nuts, eggs, fruit, or dairy should always be listed on your menu. There is nothing like having to employ an EpiPen to ruin a party. Here are the most common ingredients or methods to be wary of using at home.There are many others to consider, so please check out the cocktail safety resources at the bottom of this article.


Activated charcoal has been widely embraced by the health community in recent years. It has also been used by bartenders to turn cocktails an elusive, inky-black color that is otherwise almost absent in the cocktail world. While beautiful to look at, activated charcoal should not be ingested by those who use any kind of medication. Activated charcoal has been used by the medical community for a myriad of reasons, particularly to treat poisonings to save lives; however, it does not discriminate. It pulls not only bad substances out of your system but good ones as well. You may want to think twice about taking that birth control or heart medication and then drinking a spooky black beverage made with this ingredient.


Grapefruit is a delicious and ubiquitous ingredient found in many classic cocktails such as the Paloma and the Hemingway Daiquiri. It boasts many health benefits and frankly tastes great when paired with most other flavors. Grapefruit becomes undesirable when the person drinking a grapefruit-laden cocktail is on certain medications such as blood pressure medications or SSRIs. The compound furanocoumarins found in grapefruit affects your ability to break down and process medications. In fact, grapefruit is the biggest culprit for medication interactions. While it may not kill you, grapefruit may interact with your medicine and cause some undesirable side effects.


The holy grail of many craft cocktail bars is being able to create your own tonic water or syrup. Tonic water derives its desirable bitterness from cinchona bark, the source of quinine, historically used to treat malaria. Many brands of craft tonic have popped up over the years in stores; however, they have been rigorously tested and regulated by the FDA.While you may want to experiment at home with cinchona bark, unless you have the proper sourcing and laboratory tools to accurately measure the amount of quinine in your homemade tonic water, steer clear of this ingredient altogether or risk poisoning yourself or others.


Extracting ingredients in high-proof alcohol is how humans have been making liqueurs, bitters, and liquors since well, the discovery of alcohol. Extracting is one of the fastest, easiest, and most effective way to produce colors, flavors, and aromas for your drinks. Most cocktail bars create infusions and tinctures using this method. Spicy margaritas? A few fresh jalapenos in a jar of vodka will produce a spicy tincture within a few days. The problem with extraction is that not all ingredients are perfectly safe. Alcohol pulls everything out of an ingredient, even undesirable or dangerous compounds. Tobacco is a great example of the dangers of extracting the wrong ingredients, as tobacco bitters and cocktails have become trendy in the last decade. Soaking tobacco in high-proof liquor can add the equivalent of a whole cigarette pack’s worth of nicotine into one cocktail, which can be extremely poisonous.

Another example of dangerous extraction is using stone-fruit pits. The kernels at the center of peach, apricot, nectarine, and cherry pits are often used in many classic liqueurs such as Creme de Noyeaux and Amaretto. Stone fruit pits contain a small amount of poisonous compound called amygdalin. By eating the pits themselves you are not likely to experience ill effects, but if you’re extracting the raw pits in alcohol, you may be accidentally poisoning yourself.


Dry ice or liquid nitrogen when combined with water produces a stunning smoky effect, perfect for the Halloween season. They are also used in some food service environments to maintain temperatures in frozen foods and to quickly chill ice cream. The vaporous effect is certainly impressive but can be harmful and even deadly. Dry ice or liquid nitrogen should be avoided entirely. Improper ventilation can cause asphyxiation, and severe burns can be caused by handling and consuming dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Steer clear.


Garnishes are one of the most effective ways to enhance your cocktail experience. Edible flowers, citrus peels, and fresh vegetables such as cucumbers add aroma, depth of flavor, and visual impact with minimal effort. Unfortunately, even common edible garnishes can cause illness. While we have come a long way by outlawing certain chemicals such as DDT in agriculture, many foods in our stores are still treated with pesticides and even dye or wax. Supermarket flowers should never be consumed unless they are packaged as food-safe. Even the plants grown in your yard or garden can be affected by poisons and weed control products from your own or neighboring lawns. Wash all fruits and vegetables well before adding them to a drink including organic produce

As a final note, treat ingredients in cocktails the same way you would any cooking ingredients in food and don’t assume alcohol will sanitize anything. Happy (safe) mixing!

Sources for cocktail safety information: FDA –


Cocktail Safety –

Dirty Dozen list –

Categories: Food & Drink, Taste – Top Story