The year was 2016. Justin Bieber’s anti-ballad “Love Yourself” was the No. 1 song in America. Leonardo DiCaprio had been mauled by a bear and finally won his Oscar. Beyoncé’s Lemonade arrived out of thin air. And well, you know the rest. A presidential election. A nation in shock. Everything, everywhere was suddenly submerged in grim darkness. Even cocktails.
The moment was awash in the brooding hue of activated charcoal. Rooted in the ideology of Goopian wellness, activated charcoal—traditionally used in hospitals as a treatment for ingesting dangerous levels of poison—entered the cultural consciousness in 2014 when Gwyneth Paltrow promoted a charcoal-infused lemonade, alleging that the porous substance would grab onto toxins and prevent them from being absorbed into your bloodstream. At the time, it seemed plausible enough; wellness as a movement had yet to receive major critical appraisal, and activated charcoal began popping up in face masks, toothpaste, pizza crust, smoothies, ice cream and, in due time, booze.
The pitch-black hue of charcoal-infused everything was magnetic. Lattes brewed into black hole sludge were strange and yet enticing—a theoretically healthful dance with the devil of sorts. Charcoal ice cream was a sinful twist on a culturally innocent food: badass, chic and maybe toxin-clearing. A cocktail, on the other hand, like the Black Tie White Noise served at Beauty & Essex in 2016 (one of the first to appear in Manhattan) made with bourbon, Scotch, yellow chartreuse, lemon and activated charcoal, laid bare just how dichotomous “healthy” cocktails could be—delightful and yet steeped in potential darkness.
Like all viral food trends, Instagram pushed the novelty happily along. Somewhere between the cookie-and-cake-adorned milkshake and the Technicolor Unicorn Frappuccino, the activated charcoal cocktail slid into the collective feed, bolstered by bartenders who hopped on the bandwagon. At Slowly Shirley in New York, the Perla Negra (rum, kalamansi, orange, honey, ginger, Batavia Arrack and sorrel) was served in a glass skull and spiked with activated charcoal for the sole purpose of turning it black. A mile away at Goodnight Sonny, the Ashes to Ashes (gin, rose, charcoal) was topped with a layer of fluffy white aquafaba, the notorious chickpea byproduct. What began as a detoxifying medical tool had become, ironically, a bedfellow to re-toxification.
But then, in June of 2018, the local health department put an end to the black magic. “Restaurants in New York City are not permitted to use activated charcoal in food because it is prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a food additive or food coloring agent,” said Carolina Rodriguez, a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokeswoman, in a statement to the Observer. The proliferation of charcoal cocktails, a perhaps on-the-nose reflection of the times, ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Activated charcoal may have disappeared from New York City backbars, but it’s still kicking in other corners of America, its diaspora of kin almost always leaning into the most literal overtones of darkness. There’s the MF Doom-inspired drink at Salt Lake City’s Good Grammar. And, at the forthcoming Blade Runner-inspired Nexus pop-up in Los Angeles, there’s the activated charcoal margarita, featuring a plastic eyeball, frozen into a block of clear ice.