Dangerous drinks

10 things not to do at home—or anywhere, according to CocktailSafe’s Camper English

Writer Camper English, the San-Francisco-based founder of Alcademics, created cocktailsafe.org when he saw the risky techniques being used by some bartenders. Bastian Bochinski photo

The Roof is on Fire! That was the name of a dangerous-drinks seminar that San Francisco writer Camper English (of alcademics.com fame) and Bittermens co-founder Avery Glasser gave in 2016 at Tales of the Cocktail. Their warnings on potentially dangerous bartending ingredients, equipment and techniques were so eye-opening, English later nabbed a grant to develop cocktailsafe.org, a geekily helpful website packed with deeply researched information and resources.

“Bartenders on Facebook were chatting a lot about potentially dangerous drinks … and I thought it would be useful to put all this information, and a lot more, in one place as a reference to bartenders everywhere,” he says.

Here are his top 10 red flags for home mixologists—and pros, too.

Cinchona can have unpleasant side effects; instead, consider a tonic syrup like the ones from Rootside Bitters.

1. Homemade tonic syrups

The danger: Powerful cinchona bark, the bitter quinine-containing ingredient that gives tonic water its astringent bite, can cause nasty symptoms like tinnitus, vertigo and muscle weakness, and levels are hard to control at home.

The solution: If you must have muddy-brown homemade tonic, choose solid (not powdered) cinchona bark, filter your tonic syrup very well, and be conservative with consumption. Otherwise, buy safe commercial syrups such as Rootside’s Classic Dry from Vancouver Island, which is clear.


Tealeaves’ lapsang souchong tea is an easier—and safer—way to introduce smoky flavours.

2. Tobacco-infused drinks

The danger: Not only are tobacco-containing food and drinks illegal in many places, English says, infusing tobacco into alcohol “can extract an estimated 20 times the nicotine” compared to smoking.

The solution: He recommends getting the same notes from smoky lapsang souchong tea or smoky-tasting bitters that don’t contain any tobacco.


Vintage recipes are inspiring, but some vintage ingredients are best avoided.

3. Vintage recipes

The danger: A slave to Jerry Thomas’ historical 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide would find recipes calling for ammonia, turpentine and less obviously unsafe ingredients like calamus.

The solution: “Do a quick search to ensure the current legal and safety status of all ingredients,” English says. Cocktailsafe.org is U.S. based, but packed with useful info.


4. Buying ingredients online

The danger: Bitters or amari makers shopping online for essential oils, tinctures and botanicals should note that “many are designed for scenting beauty products and may not have edible liquid solvents,” English says.

The solution: Look for specific “food safe” designation and labelling.


5. Fat-washed spirits

The danger: The home bartender attempting bacon-fat-washed-bourbon might find out the hard way that “the meat used carries the threat of botulism/bacteria poisoning if handled improperly. The alcohol alone will not sterilize [it] at standard ABVs,” English says.

The solution: Only use fully cooked meat, refrigerate or freeze the resulting spirit, wash equipment thoroughly and treat the resulting spirit more like fresh meat than alcohol: use or toss it in a few days.


6. Non-food-safe containers

The danger: Those amazing vintage crystal decanters or ceramic tiki mugs aren’t a steal if they leach lead or other metals into your alcoholic beverage.

The solution: Buy new barware, such as modern lined-copper mugs for Moscow Mules.   


Watch for nut allergies in tiki drinks.

7. Allergies and sensitivities

The danger: New tiki enthusiasts with nut allergies might not realize falernum and orgeat contain almonds. Grapefruit can interfere with certain medications, as can the inky activated charcoal sometimes used in black cocktail recipes.

The solution: For black drinks, choose recipes using black sesame, blackcurrant, squid or cuttlefish ink, or a safe black spirit, such as Hounds Vodka, B.C.-made One Foot Crow gin and vodka, or Old Order Black Goat vodka.


8. Foraged plants and flowers

The danger: You might be inspired to use flowers like daffodil or hydrangea from your garden as garnish, but both are unsafe for human consumption.

The solution: Look up “flowers” and “plants” (plus “mushrooms” and “resources”) on cocktailsafe.org for a long list of edible and dangerous stuff, plus links to other databases.


Wash citrus before using it in fresh-squeezed sours.

9. Dirty citrus

The danger: Surface antibiotics on citrus fruit can be dragged into the fruit’s flesh when you cut into it to squeeze the juice or make a garnish.

The solution: Wash all citrus well before using it in any cocktail preparation.


Dry ice sure looks cool—but it can be a tricky substance to work with. Getty Images photo

10. Liquid nitrogen and dry ice

The danger: Inspired by food-TV chefs using liquid nitrogen, or that dry ice from your grocery delivery, to make a dramatic drink? “When it turns into gas at room temp it displaces oxygen in the air and can cause asphyxiation,” English warns.

The solution: Store and use these substances in well-ventilated areas and always in approved containers. With dry ice, for instance, be careful driving with it in your car with closed windows.

—by Charlene Rooke

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