Designer cocktails are trending at bars around the U.S., with mixologists resurrecting classic drink recipes books from the 1920s and '30s, or even earlier.
One example is a pine-themed drink, the Muddled Pine Cocktail, developed by bartender Carmen Polcyn of Chicago. Made with gin or vodka, the recipe calls for boiling pine needles in simple syrup and dropping a pine sprig in the glass.
But infusions and flavorings that were considered safe in previous decades have now become suspect - partially owing to a greater awareness of the dangers of allergies (such as to tree nuts), but also because barkeeps are continuously exploring new flavor combinations, giving rise to potential clashes with other flavorings, or even common medications.
To safeguard professional bartenders, expert Camper English has launched a website, www.CocktailSafe.org, that highlights potential dangers in making cocktails with certain ingredients, including those derived from certain wood or trees. (The Muddled Pine is not suspect based on a check of the site references.) English is a San Francisco-based cocktails and spirits writer, speaker, competition judge, consultant, and maker-of-cocktails for special events. He has been the cocktail columnist for Fine Cooking and Details, and was the Contributing Drinks Editor for Saveur.
In wood-related concoctions, bartenders have begun barrel aging drinks, and English provides safety precautions relating to the preparation of the barrels to avoid contamination and bacteria transmission. Washing barrels with chlorinated water can also lead to corking, giving the beverages a corky, musty flavor. (Purdue University explains corking here.) Bartenders are also cutting corners, dropping oak infusion spirals into bottles of liquor to get the flavor without the bother of a barrel.
Oak spiral infuser is placed in liquor bottles as a shortcut to barrel aged flavor.
In the site database, details are offered on Juniper, used for flavoring gin, but which has at least one variety that is poisonous: Juniperus Sabina. A link to the Gin Foundry provides further explanation. Among other species called out are poisonwood, manchineel, and black walnut. In its barrel aging notes CocktailSafe.org says:
In making barrel-aged cocktails, wood/stave infusions, burning wood smoke, or any other use of wood in cocktails, bartenders should be aware that not all types of wood are safe for food use (including poisonwood, manchineel, and black walnut). Also, woods that have been coated, protected, painted, or otherwise prepared as furniture, treated with insecticides, etc. should be avoided.
Most warnings against using woods in the medical literature come from lung health issues (Western red cedar, redwood, other logging woods) due to inhalation by woodworkers, so it’s hard to know if those irritations pass along to people drinking from vessels made from these woods.
Camper English also advises barkeeps to "beware of using chlorinated water to rinse/wash barrels, as chlorine can lead to “corked” barrels," and that some barrels not meant for cocktails are waxed on the inside. "These barrels may be watertight but release their wax if rinsed with very hot water," the site warns. www.cocktailsafe.org
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