When people think about cannabis, the first thing that comes to mind is usually smoking it, then eating it or possibly vaping it. But, until recently, the idea of drinking cannabis wasn’t really on most people’s radars. But this is changing fast.
Cannabis-infused food and drink is already a thriving health trend across the globe with cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) now making regular appearances on trendy bar and restaurant menus.
Cannabis has become somewhat of a buzz word in the beverage industry recently and mainstream companies are already taking giant leaps and bounds into the CBD and THC-infused drinks landscape.
The cannabis constituent has rumoured health benefits claimed to help ease anxiety, inflammation, acne, pain and cramping – all qualities in which has, ultimately, seen CBD products soar in popularity.
Rumours run rife
Last year, Coca-Cola, best know for its eponymous caffeine-based drink, was rumoured to be in talks to explore a line of CBD-infused beverages, but the soft drinks giant decided not to proceed – for now.
For a company that equates itself with family values, Coca-Cola’s foray into cannabis-infused drinks would almost certainly be a seminal shift.
With a massive global following as it is, the dominant soft drinks producer may, one day, have the chance to make CBD-infused drinks for the masses.
And as speculation ran riot, Coca-Cola issued a statement in October last year regarding the company’s interest in CBD.
While Coca-Cola said it had “no interest” in marijuana or cannabis, the company said it was “closely watching” the growth of non-psychoactive CBD as an ingredient in ‘functional wellness’ beverages around the world.
A company spokesperson commented: “The space is evolving quickly, but no decisions have been made at this time.”
Talks with cannabis producers
Although the company remains tight-lipped to comment on further CBD speculation, it has not ruled it out.
Meanwhile, UK-based alcoholic drinks giant Diageo is reported to be in talks with at least three leading cannabis producers to explore how it could make inroads into the burgeoning legal cannabis market.
According to Canadian news outlet BNN Bloomberg, the London-based drinks giant – whose brands include, Smirnoff vodka, Gordon’s gin and Baileys liqueur – is poised to bring out a line of marijuana-infused drinks and is said to be in “serious discussions” with several major cannabis producers about a possible collaboration.
Furthermore, Ivan Menezes, Diageo’s chief executive, revealed that he is keeping a close eye on North America’s cannabis craze, but will avoid rushing into the market as the drinks company could push sales and profits higher without turning away from alcohol.
However, just like Coca-Cola, a Diageo spokesperson could only confirm that they were monitoring the sector and declined to comment further on whether they would release a product of their own.
With cannabis-infused drinks – mainly gaining traction in the US – it prompts the question: is it catching on in the UK?
It appears the UK has snapped up the opportunity to delve into cannabis-infused drinks.
A recent survey from the Cannabis Trades Association discovered that the number of CBD users in Britain rose from 125,000 in 2016 to 250,000 last year.
One English producer, which launched what is believed to be the UK’s first cannabis-infused gin, has spared no expense in creating its own CBD products.
Hin Gin, co-founded by Chris Puttick and Mat Graham, is made without the THC or CBD cannabis compounds; instead infusing it with hemp.
Hemp is the fibre of the cannabis plant, extracted from the stem, and usually used to make rope, strong fabrics, paper and now, gin.
“We entered the cannabis market last year in fascination of how this wonderful crop had been so desolate in our society for many years,” explained Puttick.
“It led us to spot gaps in the market, two of them in fact.
“Firstly, there wasn’t a British cannabis-infused spirit offering and secondly, there most definitely wasn’t an eco-friendly one.
“An acre of hemp sucks in 20 times the amount of carbon as one acre of trees.
“The hemp we source will have benefit to the environment because of its carbon sequestration but the stalks, which we don’t use, go into other products like clothing, rope and biomass.
"It’s also a legume so fixes nitrogen in the soil.”
With only four hemp-infused gin businesses in the world, co-partner Graham added his delight in becoming the UK’s very first and believes that cannabis-infused products will “revolutionise the world”.
Made the first move
“We are the first to introduce a hemp-infused gin to the UK,” he exclaimed.
“We had been watching the hemp and CBD market for a while before we chose to enter the spirits market.
“Our gin started by using a tea strainer in a very standard gin – we quickly realised its taste aroma and texture was so different to anything else on the market.”
Puttick added that, in his view, regulation will ultimately be the key driver in guiding the cannabis-infused drinks industry in the UK.
“We are a fast-paced, legal, first mover in the industry and we’re here to stay for the duration – shaping the industry as we go,” he said.
“Consumer adoption has been no problem for us at all and our demographic covers almost all ages where we have, surprisingly, seen greater consumption from the 50 to 60 age range.
“It’s an exciting space and I can only predict a huge amount of growth as wholesalers and on-trade businesses start to pick up CBD and hemp-based drinks.”
Summarising, Puttick says that strong science-based British brands will “inevitably dominate” the UK market and believes there will be “many more” products coming to market over the next few years.
“We have built a strong spirits company and this will be our focus for the foreseeable future, but Hin as a brand will be releasing more spirits to its portfolio soon,” he concluded.
“The first being a Hemp & Hibiscus flavoured gin, mainly directed at the summer on-trade pub market.
“The second release, which is imminent, will be the UK’s first hemp-infused vodka and we plan to launch the spirit very soon.
“With a global market outlook of 4.4bn by 2025, this is a hot area for investors and entrepreneurs to achieve growth.”
With a global market outlook reportedly worth billions, it comes as no surprise that brewing giant Budweiser Brewing Group – formerly known as AB InBev – is looking at the market.
The drinks supplier, whose global brands include Budweiser and Stella Artois, had previously taken a cautious approach to cannabis, while now it seems all systems are go.
Making a statement to the rest of the drinks world, it has teamed up with Canadian pot producer Tilray in a $100m (£78.7m) joint venture to research cannabis-infused non-alcoholic drinks for the Canadian market.
The alliance, the latest in a string of deals by global alcohol and tobacco giants in Canada’s cannabis sector, comes amid booming demand for cannabis and long-term decline in alcohol consumption and smoking.
Canada, which became the world’s first major country to legalise the recreational use of cannabis in October, is expected to approve cannabis-based products including beverages and edibles in October later this year.
The partnership was welcomed by Tilray CEO Brendan Kennedy who lauded the opportunity to work with the brewing giant.
Kennedy said last year: “We are delighted to be joining forces with a world-leading brewing company – AB InBev – to research how to create enjoyable cannabis beverage products.
“Tilray and AB InBev share a commitment to responsible product development and marketing and we look forward to beginning our work on this important partnership as Tilray continues to pioneer the development of a professional, transparent and well-regulated cannabis industry.
“It’s too early to know how big cannabinoid-based beverages will be, but it’s a massive opportunity and it’s something we’re interested in investing aggressively in.”
The wine industry has also started to develop cannabis-infused wines.
In an attempt to tap into the growing market, Spanish producer CannaWine – which blends cannabis and grapes to create a CBD-infused wine – is hitting UK shelves.
Made with organic marijuana and biodynamically farmed grapes, the tipple is available as both red white wines (14.5% ABV) in 500ml bottles.
The Catalonia-based brand, which said the drink can produce “multiple health benefits”, hopes to go global with the ‘weed wine’.
Head winemaker Jeremy Sayols Alba spoke of his enthusiasm in bringing the drink to fruition.
“The process is what makes us unique,” he explained.
“We soak the best parts of our cannabis sativa plants directly into the wine and use the alcohol to extract the CBD.
“The wines are unfined and unfiltered, so we don’t lose any cannabinoids, also making them vegan friendly.”
No matter what the future holds for CBD drinks, one thing stands out: it is likely to gain a lot of attention, fans and users.
Although, with every success, there is always a hurdle to jump and the biggest challenge for the beverage cannabis industry could be getting to grips with potentially strict regulations. How the Government and related industries react, however, is another topic for another day.