A Gin and Tonic Joint? Why Flavor Is the New Cannabis Trend

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“This is perfect,” says Ry Prichard, rubbing his hands together and staring at the spread arranged on the dining room table in front of us: Plates of steaming elk prime rib drizzled in gravy, accompanied by a row of small glass jars filled with ultra-high-potency marijuana concentrates with names like Skywalker OG and African Haze.


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Prichard, co-host of the hit Viceland TV show Bong Appétit and one of the Internet’s most venerated cannabis critics, tells me the best way to proceed is to smoke a bit of a concentrate, also known as a “dab,” then take a bite of food or sip a drink, and then take another dab. “The concentrate enhances the bite of food you’re having, then the food changes the concentrate the second time you have it,” he says.

Never mind that I’ve never in my life done a dab, which can clock in at 60 to 90 percent psychoactive THC, or roughly four times the potency of your typical marijuana strain. Tonight I’m apparently going to be doing six dabs, two for each stage of our three-course meal.

Not to worry, Prichard says. He grabs what looks like a small glass water bong, but instead of a metal bowl at one end in which to pack dried marijuana flower, there’s a tiny, translucent quartz cup affixed to a hollow glass arm. He takes a miniature blow torch and flambés the quartz cup, or “nail,” until it glows bright red. Then he places a tiny dab of concentrate from one of the jars on the nail and inhales deeply as the sticky substance vaporizes and flows through the pipe and deep into his lungs.

I’m here with Prichard, nervously preparing to absorb massive amounts of marijuana into my body, to try to understand the latest cannabis craze: Terpenes, the organic compounds in cannabis and many other plants that are responsible for their unique aromas. Different mixtures of terpenes make cannabis strains smell and taste a certain way. When people talk about marijuana varieties smelling “skunky,” “cheesy,” or “citrusy,” they’re referring to the effects of different cannabis terpenes. But now a growing number of marijuana aficionados say terpenes are also the secret ingredient that shapes the high itself.

Until this point, the name of the game in marijuana has always been THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive part of the plant. Breeders have developed strains with ever higher levels of THC, and concentrate makers have produced ever more potent THC extracts, with taste and terpenes taking a back seat.

But now it’s all about marijuana strains and products brimming with flavorful terpenes, both to achieve a great-tasting hit and a superior high in the hours to come. Some marijuana operations throw “tasting parties,” where attendees smoke cannabis and then various purified terpenes from non-marijuana sources that are meant to provide different physical experiences, from “body buzz” to “momentum” to “contentment.” Other companies have secured millions in funding with the promise of breaking apart cannabis into various terpenes to produce products with customizable highs. Still other firms are infusing marijuana with additional terpenes to end up with joints that taste like gin and tonics.

To get to the bottom of this new terpene trend, I’ve enlisted Prichard, whose friendly, soft-spoken demeanor belies the fact that he’s achieved cult status among hardcore marijuana geeks. His ultra-high-def photos of sticky marijuana trichomes have graced the pages of High Times and other publications. His stint as one of the country’s first-ever cannabis strain reviewers was captured in the documentary Rolling Papers. As business partner in Kind Bill Concentrates, he’s helping to develop live resin, a new kind of concentrate extracted from flash-frozen cannabis to capture the fresh flavors and fragrances of the original plant. And on various episodes of Bong Appétit, he’s helped concoct cannabis-infused tuna crudo, Dippin’ Dots made from juiced marijuana leaves, and blunts rolled by master sushi chefs. (Season three of the James Beard-nominated show starts on September 14.)

More than anything else, Prichard is obsessed with flavor — not just that of cannabis, but also of high-quality food and drink, and how all these tastes can mix together in complex and delicious ways. He dreams of extracting the essence of tea leaves flash frozen at their peak ripeness and of opening a hybrid restaurant-distillery where patrons can mix and match various flavorful combinations of food, drink, and marijuana. “Epicurean sounds like a douche-y thing to say, but that’s how I would describe myself,” he tells me. Prichard is a true believer in the power of terpenes. He organizes semi-regular events where he carefully pairs highly flavorful marijuana concentrates with elaborate combinations of foods and drinks, where all the various tastes and aromas are meant to produce highly specific experiences.

“Not only do they give you the flavor, but terpenes direct the high,” Prichard says. “You can take people on journeys with different effects.” It makes sense, when you look at how proponents of aromatherapy have long argued that aromatic plant oils have physical and psychological effects. So maybe it also makes sense that high concentrations of a terpene like D-Limonene, which is responsible for citrusy odors in cannabis and other plans, also produce exceptionally energetic highs, as some terpene champions suggest.

Some researchers also believe terpenes amplify marijuana’s therapeutic properties through what they call an “entourage effect.” “Obviously, people care about nice flavors, but my primary concern is the medical benefits that can be harnessed from terpenes,” says Dr. Ethan Russo, medical director at the Los Angeles-based biotechnology firm Phytecs, who has long studied cannabis compounds. “People in the industry are finally starting to realize something that has been staring us in the face all along: that terpenes contribute to the pharmacological effects of cannabis.”

But if terpenes are the secret to customizable, therapeutic highs, no one has yet fully delivered on the promise. In 2014, the Colorado startup Ebbu scored major funding and media attention by promising to use precise formulations of terpenes and other cannabis components to dial in specific psychoactive results. Three years later, the company has launched a variety of concentrates and vape pens, but its much-touted flagship line of Ebbu Feelings products, with names like Chill, Create, and Zen, still aren’t available for purchase.

To help me understand the potential of various terpenes, Prichard offered to let me experience a small-scale version of one of his tasting parties by pairing terpene-rich marijuana concentrates with a variety of dishes: Elk prime rib matched with a lemony dab of Hardcore OG, Alaskan halibut paired with the sandalwood notes of African Haze, cold brew coffee complemented by a nutty hit of Skywalker OG. But when he passed me the pipe during our first course, I somehow screwed up and hardly smoked anything. Thanks to my inexperience, we skipped the post-course dab and moved on to the second combination. I managed to inhale some smoke this time, but it didn’t taste especially unique, nor did my resulting high feel particularly special.

I was determined to experience something on our last pairing. But before I knew it, I’d inhaled way too much from the pipe. The hit landed like a sledgehammer, and my brain turned to mush. I didn’t taste the various couplings of sweet and musky, and citrusy and earthy, promised by Prichard. The only journey I went on as dinner came to an end was from the table to the living room couch, then on to bed.

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Maybe it’s my fault for being a complete screw-up when it comes to smoking pot. Maybe the future of cannabis really will be fueled by terpenes and taste. “There is so much potential for the industry to mature the way the wine industry did, and have the same kind of fanaticism as the wine industry has,” Prichard says. If so, he’ll be among the impassioned fanatics leading the way. But in the meantime, maybe it’s best not to expect too much in terms of made-to-order highs. Instead, when it comes to terpenes and aromas, Prichard suggests keeping it simple. “If you go to a dispensary and you smell a bunch of jars, the one that smells the best to you is the one you should get,” he says. “It’s a body-chemistry thing.”

Also, take it from me: Go easy on the concentrates. As I learned the hard way, a little dab’ll do ya.

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