There’s no doubt that low-ABV beverages are currently shaking up the beverage market. Strong spirits are being traded for more mellow ready-to-drink cocktails, heavy IPAs are making way for sparkling seltzers and lower-alcohol, light-bodied wines are taking center stage as bold, tannic reds fade somewhat from popularity. Even those who are giving up alcohol completely have the option to sip on alcohol-free wines and ready-to-drink 0% ABV cocktails.
I don’t mind an alcohol-free drink on occasion, but if I’m not going to be drinking, a sparkling water will often get the job done. While some of these no-ABV beverages are heavily focused on flavor and terroir, it seems like the main benefit to many of them is simply to have something to hold onto and sip when everyone else is drinking. And while that kind of beverage may have its place, some of us want to feel something from our beverage—we’re just trying to avoid the hangover the next morning.
That’s where cannabis-infused beverages come into the picture. While edibles are famed for their lack of predictability (will you feel a slight buzz or will you be thrown into an hours-long panic attack? Who knows!), beverages containing THC and other cannabinoids deliver faster and more predictable effects, i.e., you’re unlikely to be forced to lock yourself in the bathroom and hyperventilate during a family event after taking one sip too many. Some products contain very low levels of THC, like Cann’s Social Tonics, which only boast two milligrams of THC in addition to four milligrams of CBD (which is not psychoactive). Allowing users to dose at these low levels implies that these drinks have more of a social use than a typical edible does.
While these drinks solve the problem of having nothing to hold and sip on while you’re at the party, they also replace one of alcohol’s other functions: getting drinkers to relax and interact with others with more ease in social settings. Of course, cannabis, however it’s consumed, does not have the same effects as alcohol, but in many cases, that can be a good thing. Do you really need fuel to call up your ex in the middle of the night after one beer too many, or are you truly trying to relax? Cannabis-infused beverages seem well-poised to facilitate the latter.
Of course, not everyone reacts to THC the same way, which is why you’ll find some products on the market that contain quite a bit more THC, like Rebel Coast’s infused seltzers, where you’ll find 10 milligrams of THC in the can. One brand called S*Shots seems to work more like the way you would treat liquor, as most users would find the 100-milligram bottle to deliver quite a high dose of THC. And for others, THC can cause anxiety or other unpleasant effects, so it’s not for everyone.
But regardless of what dosage appeals to you and your situation, the cannabis industry’s foray into the world of beverages, while not new, is seemingly set up for success as more and more people question the role alcohol plays in their lives. The sober-curious movement has made strides beyond Dry January and is now making consumers question the ubiquity of alcohol. Cannabis-infused beverages fill a gap in the market between no- and low-ABV beverages: They have mind-altering effects but don’t involve alcohol.
Estimates predict significant growth in this market over the next several years as states in the U.S. continue to legalize recreational cannabis and consumption of the substance continues to become more mainstream and accepted. Even though skeptics of the industry question cannabis’ role in the drinks world—nobody expects people who really care about wine to ditch the complexities of a terroir-driven $75 bottle of wine for a cannabis-infused seltzer with the flavor profile of a White Claw—I believe that the demand for these kinds of beverages will only grow in the future. Whether the customer base for such products expands more widely remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if well-done, flavor-focused brands like Cann rise to the occasion and take advantage of this new need.
Drinking culture is—or should be, at least—a reflection of our human need to connect, to commiserate, to consume in community. And although some are happy with an alcohol-free cocktail, others are still drawn to the intoxicating effects of alcohol but simply don’t want to pay the health costs or experience the intense mind-altering effects associated with it. However, these people may be liable to consume alcohol in social situations even when they know it’s not in their best interest if other options aren’t available to them. And why would we want that, whether on an individual or a societal level? I hope the cannabis-infused beverage industry continues to grow to offer consumers more access to a wider array of options… without the stigma.
Samantha Maxwell is a food and wine writer, editor and occasional oyster slinger based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.