Enter the nicotini: Smoking ban leads to tobacco-infused drink
Forget the cosmopolitan. Set aside the mojito. A new drink has emerged on trendy Las Olas Boulevard since restaurants were forced to ban smoking -- the nicotini.
Call it a liquid cigarette because this drink comes complete with the nicotine rush and tobacco aftertaste found in a pack of Camels. These tobacco-spiked martinis are being served up for die-hard smokers who don't want to leave their barstools and go outside to light up.
Larry Wald, the owner of the Cathode Ray Club, came up with the homemade brew as he searched for ways to help smokers cope with the new smoke-free atmosphere Florida voters ordered last fall. Soak tobacco leaves in vodka overnight, deaden the juice's harshness by adding a couple other liquors, and voilÃ , the nicotini of Las Olas.
More than 300 of the drinks have been served since the smoking ban started on July 1. However, not everyone is ecstatic at the thought. Anti-smoking champions and the medical establishment worry that there is no way to know how much nicotine is in the drinks and fear it could be a dangerous concoction.
Wald dismisses the criticism. He first planned to offer hard candy for smokers to suck on, but decided he wanted something more creative. After all, he developed the Fort Lauderdale club's gay dating game and Dynasty-episode night.
At midnight July 1, he ordered his bartenders to pick up the ashtrays and offered free shots of the nicotini to smokers.
"Some say that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Well, I say when life gives you a smoking ban, have a nicotini," Wald said. "It's something that's fun, but it's not going to be a big seller. When people want a cigarette, we can offer a shot."
Other nightspots have set up outdoor patios or stopped serving food because smoking is still allowed in bars and open-air cafes. But those who have been monitoring the smoking ban and those who track South Florida nightlife think Cathode is the only place offering nicotine-laced cocktails.
"We tried to think of what places might come up with to get around the amendment, but I never would have dreamed of something like this," said Sandra Kessler, executive director of the American Lung Association of Florida.
Food and drinks spiked with nicotine first appeared earlier this year in New York City after officials there banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Wald said he heard how those places were using tobacco and decided to try it in Fort Lauderdale.
He serves his nicotinis chilled and offers several varieties. Prices range from $3 for a shot to $5.50 for a full cocktail.
The regular nicotini has more bite than a martini and leaves a noticeable aftertaste in the throat. The menthol variety contains crÃ¨me de menthe and has a cough drop taste, while the "Black Lung" includes Kahlua and has a coffee flavor.
"It tastes like a cross between vodka and chewing tobacco," said Fort Lauderdale resident Jonathan Cook after trying his first nicotini. "That's not necessarily a bad thing."
Nothing in Florida's anti-smoking law or health code prohibits such drinks, but health experts have concerns.
Although the cocktails are somewhat akin to the nicotine patch and nicotine gum some use to quit smoking, those products contain a set amount of nicotine and carry warnings about how they should be used. With the drinks, the nicotine content could vary widely depending on how many tobacco leaves were in the marinade and how long they fermented.
"This is craziness," said Glenn Singer, a lung specialist at the Broward General Medical Center. "It's crazy to give people nicotine-laced cocktails so they don't have withdrawal."
According to Singer and other health experts, the side effects can include dizziness, nervousness, heart palpitations and nicotine poisoning.
Wald realized the potential potency of the drink as he experimented to find the right mix. One batch was so strong that Jeffrey Fuller, a Cathode regular who was helping taste-test the early versions, felt lightheaded and had to sit down.
Fuller said the final mixture tastes better, isn't as strong and could help some smokers curb their cravings.
"A couple sips and you feel like you've smoked a cigarette," he said. "You don't feel the need to go outside and have one."
Some gay anti-smoking advocates are as incensed as health experts because Cathode is a major gay nightspot in Fort Lauderdale.
Studies have shown that smoking is twice as common among gay men as their straight counterparts, and the tobacco industry once targeted the gay community to increase sales under a marketing campaign code-named Project SCUM. Fledgling efforts are under way to curb smoking among gays, and activists argue that Cathode's cocktails are counterproductive.
"To me, it sounds likes a cocktail of death," said Elise Lindborg, who runs an Internet-based project called the Gay American Smoke Out.
But Tony Miros, who has followed South Florida nightlife as a columnist for a variety of publications, said he hopes other places follow Cathode's lead and that the nicotini soon comes to South Beach. Yet Miros, a smoker with a healthy dose of skepticism, said he will drink one only after he sees someone else try it.
"That's just too original," Miros said. "This is the point of desperation that they have us to."