- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
There are many tricks you can apply to your boozy treats to get them Halloween-ready. Prepare a spiked punch in a hollowed-out pumpkin or a skull-shaped glass, or give your creepy concoction some dry ice for extra mystery. Another, increasingly more popular way to get in the spirit uses an unexpected ingredient that bartenders have begun to feature in cocktails year-round: small amounts of activated charcoal.
One look at a drink with activated charcoal and it’s clear why the fine black powder is so appealing, especially for Halloween. Any elixir with it will turn the color of midnight — starkly black and nearly opaque in appearance. For bartenders looking to create something memorable on their menus, it’s relatively taste-free and easy to incorporate in drinks.
Both the striking color and that versatility caught the attention of Prohibition Creamery owner Laura Aidan, whose East Austin ice cream shop not only features boozy frozen desserts but also classic and original cocktails. Her shop had only been open a few months last year when she experimented with charcoal, though not in the drinks. Instead, the activated charcoal turned the Black Magic ice cream she made in celebration of Halloween into one of the most popular items on the menu.
“People freaked out when we took it away. So we brought it back, then took it away, then brought it back about a month ago,” Aidan said.
In addition to the Black Magic ice cream, there’s now also the Moontower cocktail, with Mezcal El Silencio, honey, lime, soda, charcoal, bitters and a flamed orange peel garnish. The soda is poured last, bubbling on top and creating a contrast of colors with the activated charcoal on the bottom of the highball glass. It looks mysterious, but the citrus, smoke and bubbles give it an approachable, refreshing flavor.
In some ways, the Moontower — named after the 150-foot-tall moonlight towers that illuminated Austin around the turn of the 20th century — is remarkably similar to another activated charcoal cocktail in town, the “Harry Potter”-inspired the Last Horcrux. Four Seasons bartender and Potter fan Sarah Rahl makes the spicy, fruity drink with Ilegal Mezcal, Aperol, lime, pineapple, cayenne syrup, charcoal and a flamed orange peel.
Though both cocktails feature mezcal, tequila’s more rustic cousin, it’s far from the only spirit that should be paired with charcoal. Just about any of them can be thanks to the powder’s relative lack of flavor, Rahl said; the main requirement for a charcoal cocktail is that it should be shaken versus stirred “or you’re going to get a texture issue. It’ll get grainy.”
Or you could reduce the powder into a syrup, as Aidan does for the Moontower, so that it’s less messy and already dissolved by the time a customer requests the drink.
She sources the charcoal from places like Central Market and Whole Foods, which have it in capsule form or in bulk by the scoop. But most of the people who purchase it probably don’t put it in their booze.
Well before bartenders began co-opting it for pitch-colored cocktails, activated charcoal was popular with those who say it provides myriad benefits in the fields of health, beauty and science. Far more porous than the charcoal that barbecues your steaks, the powder traps toxins and chemicals, so whether it’s in your gut in the form of a capsule or on your face as a mask to flush out your pores, activated charcoal is both a bona fide poison treatment method and a popular home remedy.
The detoxifier has its downsides, however, which is why some bartenders hesitate to use it. Namely, activated charcoal doesn’t differentiate between the kinds of chemicals that it might absorb, which means that it could potentially affect the medications and supplements you take while they’re still in your stomach. (More cautious mixologists recommend avoiding charcoal cocktails if you’re taking prescription medications, or at least waiting a few hours until they’ve been absorbed.)
Rahl acknowledges the potential risks but also says the amount in the Last Horcrux is so minimal as to be harmless.
“People like to take charcoal pills for health benefits, so they joke that, ‘Oh, look, it’s a healthy cocktail!’ But it’s actually not as much as you’d get in a pill. In a way, that’s a good thing,” she said. “The charcoal soaks up everything — it could be things you want soaked up or don’t. Honestly, it’s less than a gram (in the Last Horcrux), so it’s not going to hurt you. If you had 10 of these cocktails, the alcohol is going to hurt you more.”
She was first introduced to activated charcoal as an edible ingredient in ice cream, but it was at an ice cream shop in her home state of Maine and not the Black Magic scoop at Prohibition Creamery. Rahl and Aidan have noticed that people at their bars are starting to recognize drinks with charcoal (as well as the ice cream, of course) as “a good Instagram opportunity,” Aidan said.
The Last Horcrux didn’t originally come with the charcoal at all. The Four Seasons’ Lobby Bar had intended to add the charcoal simply as a Halloween special, “but then after naming it and seeing it that black color, it was just too cool not to have on the menu full-time,” Rahl said.
That’s a good rule of thumb: Already have a cocktail that you’re familiar with making? Just add the charcoal powder to it and shake well to feature it at your Halloween party.