The unexpected health ingredient we’re seeing in everything from lattes to ice cream? Activated charcoal. The medicinal byproduct of slowly burned wood, peat, or coconut shells, it’s a highly porous and nonpolar substance that binds to toxins. This aesthetically distinctive superfood is available in everything from powders to pills to sponges, thought to whiten teeth, rid the body of toxins, cure hangovers, and more.
Pulse and Remedy
These claims come from the activated charcoal’s purported anti-inflammatory properties—Lucky Rice says to think of it as a “water filter for the body.” Commonly used to treat poisoning in emergency rooms, it’s effective at binding to toxins in the stomach. As for its hangover-preventing powers, the jury is still out, and there isn’t a lot of research to back this up yet (though there’s plenty of convincing word-of-mouth). It’s important to note that though activated charcoal has been marketed to absorb alcohol, it doesn’t actually bind well to alcohol, so you’re still going to get drunk. Instead, some dietitians believe that since its cleansing properties are so strong, it can help remove toxins from the liver and bloodstream, saving you from that pounding headache and turning stomach the next day.
Health benefits aside, it’s undeniable that activated charcoal is the perfect way to create a mysterious, Instagram-friendly cocktail. Jim Kearns, the beverage director of Slowly Shirley in New York’s West Village, didn’t have detoxing in mind when he crafted the Perla Negra. It uses such a small amount of the charcoal that there probably wouldn’t be much of a health benefit.
“My reason for using activated charcoal in a cocktail was purely aesthetic… I’d also wanted to create a cocktail with activated charcoal for a while because I had seen a few at other bars and really appreciated the visual impact they had, along with the way they play with one’s perception of how they will taste.” He says that the public has generally been intrigued by the trend and is excited to try it, and that “their reaction is… one of surprise, as they expect the drink to taste completely different to how it looks.”
Speaking of taste, charcoal doesn’t add much flavor—if you don’t like burnt toast, I’m guessing this is a good thing. Difford’s Guide explains that while the change in color is undeniably dramatic, “the flavor is little changed besides being faintly smoky with a touch of added bitterness.” The biggest change is the texture, which is slightly gritty.
Kearns’ cocktail was inspired by a trip to a black sand beach in Costa Rica, and his recipe captures the essence of the tropics with an exotic, fruity, and floral flavor profile.
Perla Negra (for two)
Created by Jim Kearns for Slowly Shirley
2 oz Santa Teresa 1796
0.5 tsp Activated charcoal
1 oz Kalamansi
1oz Orange juice
.5 oz Honey
.5 oz Ginger
Top: 2 oz Sorrel
Vessel: Skull bowl if you have one
Method: Add activated charcoal to shaker. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sorrel. Shake with about three large ice cubes. Strain over crushed ice into vessel. Pack a lit votive candle into the crushed ice on top of the cocktail. Measure and pour the sorrel around the candle. Garnish with orchids.
Have you tried activated charcoal for hangovers? Let us know how it went below!
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