The feds probably won't come around on mixing booze and weed any time soon, but some craft distillers and brewers have happily turned to hemp in the meantime. Low on THC and high in earthy, nutty flavors, hemp seeds have proven to be a welcome ingredient to SoNo 1420's whiskey. The distillery includes hemp seed oil in its bourbon and rye whiskey recipe for a distinct flavor and mouthfeel (and terpenes to gin for an even more skunky shot), in a cannabis-inspired version of pechuga, a style of mezcal made by hanging a piece of poultry inside the still during distillation for a unique taste.
We met up with SoNo 1420 founder Ted Dumbauld to learn more about his medal-winning whiskeys, as well as which drinks go best with hemp seeds.
Westword: What was the inspiration for blending hemp seeds with liquor?
Ted Dumbauld: I invested in and took over the management of a medical cannabis company in 2015. Having a long career in finance and engineering but no background at all in cannabis, I set out to learn everything I could about the industry. My travels took me to Kentucky for a hemp conference at the University of Kentucky. At the end of the conference, a bunch of us went out for cocktails, and, of course, when you're in Kentucky, you drink bourbon. After my second — or perhaps third — bourbon, I had the bright idea of using the seeds harvested from the hemp plant in a whiskey mash bill. I came home from that conference, bought a baby still, taught myself to make whiskey, and then started making whiskey using hemp seed. After a few iterations, I came up with a mash bill that seemed to work, and the rest is history.
Is any part of the hemp plant used in the fermentation process for alcohol, or is it for flavor?
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We’re using hemp seed in our mash bill, fermenting that mash and then distilling it. Hemp seed is an oil seed with a nutty flavor, so our whiskey takes on a fuller mouthfeel resulting from the oil in the hemp seed and a complementary marzipan/nuttiness on the finish of the whiskey. I’ve heard of some distillers using other parts of the hemp plant during the fermentation process to make vodka, although we’ve never tried that.
Which spirits do you think pair best with hemp seeds?
Both our bourbon and our rye whiskey have won silver medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Last summer we won a gold medal in the World’s Best 50 Rye Competition. I’m normally a bourbon drinker, but our rye is to die for. It seems the nuttiness of the hemp seed really complements the spiciness of rye.
What about cocktails and mixed drinks? Any traditional or new cocktails that showcase the hemp seed flavor?
In addition to our whiskeys, we also make a very herbaceous, “botanically forward” vodka called We Vodka. It's distilled from 100 percent corn and vapor infused with terpenes — the flavor and aroma molecules found in the flowers of plants, including cannabis. It makes for a wonderful dirty martini and the best Mule — we like to call it a "We’ed Mule" — you’ve ever had.
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I know hemp was federally legalized in 2018, but were there any regulatory issues? Any states that won't carry your brand because of the hemp ingredient?
Correct. The 2018 Farm Bill completely descheduled the hemp plant, defined as cannabis sativa with less than 0.3 percent THC. As a result, all of the ingredients we are using are all 100 percent federally legal. Since all alcoholic beverages are regulated by the federal government, we have had to have our recipes and labels approved by the federal government. As a result, if any customer is concerned about the legality of our products, we can show them the documentation issued to us by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Have you considered infusing other extracts from the hemp/cannabis plant — cannabinoids, terpenes, etc. — with liquor? Let's pretend that was legal. What would the infusion/production challenges be?
So even though the descheduling of the hemp plant legalized the growing of it, taking the Drug Enforcement Administration out of the picture, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to certify CBD as food-safe. My regulator, the TTB, defaults to the FDA when it comes to CBD, and they will not approve any alcoholic beverage that contains CBD. Since there is research out there that seems to indicate that the consumption of CBD with alcohol has some positive medicinal benefits (for example, it lowers your blood alcohol content without altering the mood modification provided by alcohol), many people are interested in consuming cocktails infused with CBD. Since we can’t put CBD directly into our bottles of spirits, we have developed a line of “CBD Floaters” that are crafted to mix very well with cocktails. We have four flavors, each made with fresh-squeezed fruit juices, pure cane sugar and full-spectrum, hemp-extracted CBD.