When culinary folks talk about charcoal, it’s typically in terms of a heating agent for barbecued and grilled food. Increasingly, however, mixologists and chefs are looking at one form of the substance—activated charcoal—to provide color, flavor, and texture to their menus.
How trendy is activated charcoal? An analysis by Upserve, a company that provides restaurant point-of-sale, payments, and analytics software, called the ingredient a rising star among menu trends, popping up in items from pancakes to cocktails.
“It was a pretty surprising finding for all of us,” says Jesse Noyes, senior director of marketing at the Providence, Rhode Island-based company. “While charcoal has limited use, there is definitely something happening there.”
What is activated charcoal?
Make no mistake: Activated charcoal is not the same as charcoal for grilling, though both are carbon products. The process is different, with activated charcoal typically made from products like coconut shells, bamboo, and wood that is oxidized by high heat. The resulting fine black powder is highly porous, making it a popular filtration agent in numerous industries. It also treats poisoning—just as traditional charcoal has done for ages—and is made into pills to treat various gastrointestinal ailments.
Activated charcoal has gained fans in part due to its claimed health benefits. Some detox and cleanse programs say the porous material absorbs a body’s toxins and flushes them out through the digestive tract. Scientists have found charcoal’s chemical-grabbing properties work in the gastro system within an hour after something is ingested. That has led some restaurants to warn guests not to consume food or beverages that have charcoal soon after taking their medications. Cindy’s restaurant in Chicago notes that its Reanimator cocktail with activated charcoal may interfere with the absorption of medication, including, they specify, birth control. The menu follows this warning with a playful “#babymaker.”
Although activated charcoal is an ingredient in a few food items, “by and large the majority of this is related to the cocktail menu, especially in a more upscale, relaxed environment,” Noyes says.
Bartenders often use the material in a tiny quantity to provide drinks with a jet-black hue, as is the case with the Round Midnight cocktail at New York’s Clay restaurant. The drink was created originally for New Year’s Eve and was named in honor of the Thelonious Monk standard, which fits in with other cocktails at this Harlem bistro that are creatively titled after a jazz or blues song. It’s still available for guests who ask.
Round Midnight is built with pear brandy, Monk’s Secret liqueur, ginger, an IPA, smoked vanilla, and egg, all tinted with a small amount of activated charcoal. “I was going for the tuxedo look, and a more viscous cocktail,” says Andrea Needell Matteliano, Clay’s bar director.
Clay’s cocktail program strives to avoid imitation ingredients, including coloring. “We are inspired by making drinks visually appealing without putting anything artificial in, so activated charcoal attracted me for that reason,” Matteliano says. The charcoal can cause a drink to be chalky, “but if integrated properly can result in a velvety texture.”
Bringing home a concept
A restaurant with charcoal in its name would be expected to cook with that fuel and also have some menu items with activated charcoal as an ingredient. Charcoal Venice in Los Angeles does both.
The cooking source was chosen first, and then came the restaurant’s name, says Josiah Citrin, chef/owner. “At the same time, all these activated charcoal things were coming, so we decided to use them in a few items.”
On the food side, activated charcoal is used in flatbread and to make black Hollandaise sauce. The cocktail with charcoal is the Midnight Margarita, which also has tequila and lime with smoked sea salt foam atop the black liquid and smoked sea salt on the rim.
“The charcoal provides a nice, slightly earthy, smoky flavor,” Citrin says. “It is our most popular cocktail and is striking visually. People see it around the bar and want to order it.”
The restaurant also makes ice cubes with activated charcoal that “bleed black” when put into some nonalcoholic beverages.
Special occasion cocktail
It’s not just independent restaurants using activated charcoal in their cocktails, however. On Black Friday, the big post-Thanksgiving shopping day, TGI Fridays launched a black drink named for the day, adding a small bit of activated charcoal to its Ultimate Long Island Tea. Celebrating the shopping day makes sense for the Dallas-based chain, since it has stores in many American malls and shopping centers.
“We began testing ideas a couple months in advance,” says Christopher Vary, senior director of public relations. Several didn’t quite work, including a blackberry drink that came out purple, when the team came across activated charcoal that made the tea pitch black.
The testing was completed shortly before Black Friday, so there was no time to do much marketing on it. Working with a vendor, Fridays got its special version of the tea mix and instructions to bartenders at some 500 restaurants in time for the big day.
Vary says about 1,100 customers ordered the Black Friday cocktail, and he can do even better this year with time to market the drink. “It ties in so perfectly with the day,” he says.