Avoid these potentially lethal cocktail ingredients

FeaturedFood & DrinkHealth & Fitness

Written by:


At the end of March, cocktail writer, drinks educator and clear-ice pioneer Camper English got an alert from Google that one of the pages on one of his websites was getting unusually high traffic. “I’ve never actually gotten a message like that from Google before,” he says.

The extra-popular page was the entry for tonic water on CocktailSafe.org, a site English launched early last year to collect reliably sourced information about potentially dangerous drinks ingredients. And the reason it was trending was a spike in media coverage of two malaria drugs—chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine—after President Trump repeatedly touted them as a treatment for COVID-19.

What do these things have to do with each other? Cinchona, a genus of trees native to South America.

The bark of cinchona trees has high levels of quinine, which cures malaria, a deadly mosquito-borne disease that’s afflicted hot and swampy regions since at least as far back as the Roman Empire. Quinine’s a great malaria treatment, but it’s also extremely bitter-tasting, so British soldiers stationed in India in the early 1800s took to mixing it with sugar, soda water and other botanicals to make it taste better. They called the result “tonic water”, and as it turns out, it’s very tasty with gin. (English’s own book Tonic Water AKA G&T WTF digs deeper into this fascinating history.)


Besides the fact that quinine, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are all used to treat malaria, they don’t really have much to do with one another: The latter two are synthetic chemicals and aren’t contained in cinchona bark, and there’s been no suggestion by any reputable scientists that quinine, or any other chemical found in tonic water, can treat COVID-19. (And even the synthetic drugs may not be effective against COVID-19 at all, per recent studies.)

But the spike in traffic convinced English to add a warning to the page, saying in part, “…it is clear that one should Not attempt to treat or prevent malaria, COVID-19, or any other illness with cinchona tree bark. Follow your doctor’s recommendations.”

As with any drug, too much of the powerful chemicals in cinchona bark can also be very dangerous. “They have problematic side effects—to the point where they can kill you,” he says. Too much cinchona bark can cause muscle weakness, incurable tinnitus and heart issues. In people with long QT syndrome—a rare but often undiagnosed genetic heart condition—a cinchona overdose can even cause sudden cardiac arrest and death.

In fact, it was homemade tonic water that convinced English to launch CocktaiSafe in the first place, long before the global coronavirus pandemic. Some of the recipes he found online used more than ten times the legal limit of cinchona set by the FDA. “There was plenty of discussion online” about homemade tonic and other potentially dangerous cocktail ingredients, “but I felt that there needed to be a central location to put all this information in the same place,” he says. Tales of the Cocktail announced its grants program around the same time, and money from the organization funded the development and web hosting for the site, whose ever-expanding encyclopedia of potentially dangerous ingredients and techniques now includes more than 80 entries covering hundreds of botanicals, fruits and vegetables, colorings and other items you might not want to put in your drinks.

Other Trendy, Yet Potentially Lethal, Cocktail Ingredients

CocktailSafe lists lots of ingredients you’d never expect could be so dangerous. Activated charcoal, a popular ingredient used to make food and drinks black in color, can inactivate medications for things like blood pressure or birth control, especially if they’re taken in close proximity to consuming the activated charcoal. Tobacco leaves, which were a trendy flavoring for bitters and liqueurs among craft mixologists a few years ago, can deliver a potentially fatal overdose of nicotine thanks to infusion in alcohol making the chemical much more easily absorbed into the bloodstream than by smoking cigarettes or even chewing tobacco.

If you’re bored and home and looking to experiment with some botanical infusions, English has a few words of advice. First and foremost, “homemade amaretto is a terrible idea,” he says, explaining, “there’s cyanide in the pits of apricots, cherries and other stone fruits.”

Alcohol-free salty dog cocktail

One garnish to avoid is flowers: “Instagram is driving a lot of people to stick flowers in their drinks, but they can be poisonous,” English says. “Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat—poison ivy is organic too!” Plenty of flowers—chamomile, elderflower and hibiscus, for instance—are perfectly edible, but not all. Baby’s breath has been a popular cocktail garnish recently, but handling it can irritate the skin, and eating it can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Other common flowers including marigolds, tulips and hydrangeas are similarly mildly toxic, and there are even a few—like foxglove and lily of the valley—that can be fatal if ingested.

It’s also more complicated than just one ingredient is safe while another isn’t. “Not all parts of plants are edible just because one part is,” English says. A perfect example is rhubarb: The plant’s sweet-and-tart stalks are a springtime favorite in pies (and another type of rhubarb’s root is used in many bitter liqueurs), but the leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can cause kidney stones, joint pain, breathing problems, and even birth defects in pregnant people. You can sometimes find rhubarb with leaves still attached at farmers’ markets or produce stands—make sure to remove them completely before cooking or eating.

One ingredient English was very surprised to find out might be dangerous is citrus juice. Yes, the near-ubiquitous cocktail ingredient can harm you: In a process called phytophotodermatitis, exposure to the juice of limes and other citrus fruits makes your skin extra-sensitive to sunlight. If you juice a bunch of citrus and then go out in the sun (if you’re spending the day drinking on the beach, say), you could end up with a painful rash and blisters all over your hands.

Thankfully, to avoid what’s sometimes known as “Margarita burn,” (or, more punnily, “lime disease”) all you have to do is wash your hands thoroughly after handling citrus juice.

Washing your hands thoroughly is generally a good idea to avoid coronavirus, for that matter.

This article originally appeared on alcoholprofessor.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

More from MediaFeed:

10 types of meds you should never mix with alcohol


Drinking alcohol while taking medication may seem like no big deal, but combining the two can often be very dangerous.

If you’ve been prescribed medication and aren’t sure if it’s OK to drink that red wine, you might want to think twice about hitting the bottle. There are more than 100 medications that can cause issues when mixed with alcohol.

Combining them can include symptoms that range from something as minor as nausea to more serious complications, like organ damage, stomach bleeds, difficulty breathing and even death.

One study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 42 percent of people who drink alcohol were taking medication that could negatively react with the drink. So how do you know what is dangerous to mix with booze and what’s not?

Here’s a list of medications that should never be mixed with alcohol, along with some of the possible health risks. It should be noted that the risks vary based on the exact type of medication.




Risks include: Drowsiness, dizziness, risk of overdose, risk of high blood pressure/heart attack, breathing difficulty, impaired motor control, liver damage, memory problems and unusual behavior.




Risks include: Drowsiness, dizziness, increased overdose risk.




Risks include: Increased heart rate, sudden changes in blood pressure, stomach pain, vomiting, headache, and liver damage and reduced effectiveness.




Risks include: Dizziness, drowsiness, impaired concentration, possible heart or liver damage.




Risks include: Dizziness, fainting, drowsiness, heart problems such as arrhythmia.




Risks include: Internal bleeding or an increased risk of blood clots, stroke or heart attack.




Risks include: Liver damage, increased flushing and itching, increased stomach bleeding.




Risks include: Drowsiness, dizziness, increased risk for overdose.


nensuria / istockphoto


Risks include: Drowsiness, dizziness, increased risk for overdose, slowed or difficulty breathing, impaired motor control, unusual behavior and memory problems.




Risks include: Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is a particularly bad medication to mix with alcohol, as it can lead to liver damage. Other risks include upset stomach, bleeding and ulcers, and rapid heartbeat.




As the NIH points out, while everyone should be following these guidelines, women and the elderly are at an even greater risk for some of the negative side effects of mixing alcohol with certain medications.

Women’s bodies have less water than men’s do, so the rate at which women process alcohol is slower. Likewise, our bodies are slower to process alcohol as we age, so the elderly are at greater risk because of this, as well as the fact that they’re more likely to take medications.

The bad news for women and alcohol doesn’t stop with mixing medications. Recent studies have found that a drink a day is tied to an increased breast cancer risk and that even moderate drinking may alter our brains.




While the researched is mixed on the health benefits and detriments of drinking alcohol, one thing is decidedly clear: Long-term, excessive alcohol use is terribly damaging to your brain and your body, with complications including the liver condition cirrhosis and dementia.

In the video below, Dr. Samuel Ball of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University talks about some of the effects alcohol has on your brain and body.

When in doubt, always consult your doctor about what is safe for you. And if you’re not sure, it’s best to limit your alcohol intake—better safe than sorry!

This article originally appeared on SimpleMost.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.





Rostislav_Sedlacek / istockphoto


Featured Image Credit: Adobe.