Friday, September 18, 2009

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Rowley Talks Potka, Moonshine & Old Recipes on NPR

This week I’m in Philadelphia. The time is flying by faster than I thought possible. Naturally, there’re beverages and research involved—a little rum, a little whiskey, some white dog, some beer. Philly may nickle-and-dime you to death, but its beverages do not suck.

Yesterday, I also dropped by NPR station WHYY for an interview with Jim Coleman, host of the Sunday talk show A Chef’s Table. Coleman and I talked about moonshine, home distilling, and interpreting old liquor recipes. He caught me off-guard, however, when he asked about the most unusual homemade liquor I’d ever encountered.

Forget for a moment that homemade whiskey is, in and of itself, pretty damn unusual for millions of people. I could have mentioned the apple brandy made from heirloom fruit I found in Missouri, Texas bierschnapps, or sorghum skimmin’s. Nope. I had to go with something doubly illicit in most of the US: potka, a combination of vodka and cannabis.

I couldn’t see the producer or the sound engineer from where I sat, but I’m fairly sure there was some frantic sign-making to remind Coleman just how illegal that could be. Mea culpa, Chef—it’s just that I live in California where medical marijuana is legal and obtaining a prescription (they tell me) is simplicity itself. For those with a scrip, the simple version doesn't seem illegal. No prescription, of course, and you're just inviting trouble.

In both San Francisco and Texas, I found potka among home distillers and cordial-makers. Otherwise, it’s not terribly well known. In its simplest form, cannabis is macerated in 40-50% abv vodka or neutral grain spirits. Makers report that THC in the marijuana is extracted into the liquor and they end up with a beverage that combines attributes of the two.

More recently, I’ve begun to see distillers who made the same maceration, then add water, and redistill to yield a high-proof cannabis-laced spirit. Now, for me, pot's a bit like Scotch whisky: I don't mind if my friends indulge, but it just doesn't hold much appeal. Potka? Holds even less personal appeal, but I understand why some like it and as a curiosity it’s worth documenting.

It occurs to me, though, that potka may be dangerous. Not just from a legal point of view, though there's truth enough in that, but because it’s potentially lethal as well. Here’s why: Medical marijuana is legal some places because, among other effects, it reduces nausea. This is important for, say, cancer patients undergoing chemo treatment. Helps them keep down food.

Liquor, on the other hand is a toxin—a delicious, mellifluous beverage and perfectly acceptable in small doses—but a toxin nonetheless. When you drink too much, your body naturally ejects it. We’re talking about the Technicolor yawn here. Laughing at the carpet. Hailing a Buick, calling up your buddy Ralph, and invoking the name of Wyatt Earp. Protein spill on Aisle Three. Un-eating, tossing your cookies, and falling on your knees to worship the welcoming and detested porcelain god. Yeah, drink too much and you puke. Vomiting is one way your body gets rid of excess toxins and ameliorates the poisoning you just gave it.

Combine typically high-proof (50%+abv) homemade distillates with a nausea-reducing cannabis in the same glass and it seems to me there’s a potential danger of overdrinking without our natural defense of hurling to boot the excess alcohol. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the result could be some serious alcohol poisoning.

Obviously, I’m no doctor—but common sense suggests that potka is just a mistake in a bottle that needs to be treated carefully.

Of course, that segment may just get edited out. I'll tune in Sunday or head to Coleman's website later in the week to see how it all falls out.

[Edit: see Potka, Part II for a followup from a few days later, days in which I got flooded with information and emails about mixing pot and moonshine]


frederic said...

From my college memories, pot and alcohol can lead to a great chance of puking than less (it causes more intense room spins) although perhaps it would reduce the ability of a passed out person to puke.

Matthew Rowley said...

It could ~ isn't there a Spinal Tap joke here about choking on someone else's vomit? Not having a lot of experience in the pot/liquor combination, I can only presume.

I do remember, however, years ago I gave a bottle of Irish whiskey to a friend and was horrified a few weeks later when I learned that he had put the whiskey in his bong as bong water. I imagine he was also getting a dose of high-proof ethanol with each hit with the bong acting as a rudimentary thumper.

No more whiskey for him. Not nice stuff, anyway.

SeanMike said...

I can honestly say - as I've told my investigators - that it was the combination of those two things that kept me from ever trying pot again, period.

Either by itsself was fine to my system. I prefer booze, myself, though, and just the idea of potka makes me queasy in a way that few other spirits or foods can get me.

Matthew Rowley said...

SeanMike ~

I'm with you. Snake-infused spirits from southeast Asia? Ok. Handmade whiskey from Wilkes County, North Carolina? A pleasure. Aged French egg liqueur? Bring it on. Potka? I'll give that a great big "meh."