Will Cannabis-Infused Cocktails Spark Buzz in Illinois?

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On a Thursday evening in January, an intimate group of people gathered at Zin’s Flower Shop’s event space in Pilsen for a hands-on lesson in crafting two nonalcoholic drinks with Up Elevated Cocktails. Hosted by Carlos Ramos, this was the second iteration of a class dubbed “High and Dry January,” which seeks to educate people in the making of cannabis-infused mocktails.

During the instruction, Ramos, who’s imbued with the gift of gab, explains the properties of various cannabinoids, terpenes, and their effects, while also providing a mini consultation to establish an understanding of each participant’s tolerance level. Up Elevated cocktails are typically dosed between 5 and 7 milligrams for the average customer. Together, the group mixed up the Moment of Zen — a drink made with pineapple juice, matcha powder, aquafaba, coconut milk, and THC-infused Zen Green Tea from California brand Uncle Arnie’s — and a play on a hot buttered rum, featuring butter-based gummies infused with THC.

Whether someone is sober curious, totally dry, or partaking in the “California sober” lifestyle (i.e. abstaining from booze while consuming cannabis), there’s a piqued interest these days in alternatives to alcohol. Consumers want to opt out of drinking without compromising the overall social experience. That’s prompted companies such as Marz Community Brewing in Bridgeport and Hopewell Brewing in Logan Square to churn out ready-to-sip canned CBD or hopped spritzes.

But Up Elevated is taking a different approach.

A glass with a forth drink with a green marijuana leaf stenciled on a bar mat.
These are essential marijuana-infused mocktails.

Founded in 2020 by Ramos, the same year that recreational cannabis consumption became legal in Illinois, Up Elevated’s mobile mixology service takes modern mocktails to new heights by trading alcoholic spirits for cannabis-infused, water-soluble products — such as Cann bubbly tonics or Artet botanical aperitifs and spritzes — that come with an additional dose of education and awareness. Cannabinoid infusions differ based on state law. Illinois prohibits companies from mixing THC with alcohol, but they can use hemp and delta-8 or delta-10.

“We’re not mixing marijuana and alcohol, so it’s an infused mocktail,” Ramos says, though he shares that the company offers regular bar service as well.

A man smoking a cigarette in one hand and holding a drink in another while sitting on a plush chair.
Carlos Ramos and Up Elevated regularly hold events.

Ramos’s classes, which began in 2023, speak to trends in consumption among younger folks. Researchers in studies conducted by Drexel University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Washington found that there was a decrease in alcohol consumption among young adults living in states that legalized recreational cannabis. In August 2023, a Gallup poll found that 52 percent of young adults responded that they worried about the long-term effects of consuming alcohol — a 34 percent increase from five years ago. A large body of research has linked alcohol consumption to a heightened risk of developing certain cancers.

During January’s canna-mocktail class, participants Ariah, 25, and Taliya, 23 (who asked to withhold last names due to privacy concerns), shared that alcohol has rarely been a factor in their social lives — a decision they deem a less harmful option.

“We’ve noticed what alcohol has done, we know the history, and it’s not pretty,” Ariah says. “Being intoxicated is literally hurting your body. There’s a naturalness to cannabis or even shrooms — there’s an evident, natural benefit to it.”

A bartender with a long spoon preparing a cocktail.
In Illinois, bartenders can use cannabis in drinks as long as they don’t have alcohol.

“‘Intentional’ is a big word with our generation,” Taliya adds. “People are talking about it on social media. We don’t see the hype [around alcohol]. We’re very conscious of what we want to put in our bodies, from food to things like this [cannabis cocktail class]. Education goes a long way and having fun, social events where you can also learn is a nice way to go about it.”

Ramos still primarily runs bar services himself but collaborates with a team of talented friends for larger pop-ups and social media content. He takes his mission to destigmatize cannabis and normalize its presence in beverages seriously. While Ramos admits that people get cross-faded (the term for being high and drunk), he’s not encouraging that behavior on Up Elevated’s watch.

“I don’t see a world where mixing alcohol and cannabis in one beverage makes sense,” Ramos says, noting his goal is to normalize cannabis as an alternative to alcohol and set a “standard for responsible service and consumption of these beverages.”

Cocktail tongs holding a marijuana leaf-shaped infusion.
Up Elevated doesn’t take itself too seriousl.

A former beer distributor for companies such as Lagunitas Brewing Company, Ramos was working in sales and marketing as a Chicago area rep for 18th Street Brewery in Hammond and Gary, Indiana, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When he lost his job, he saw it as an opportunity to launch Up Elevated as a mobile mixology service in August 2020 — doing small pop-ups at socially-distanced, outdoor markets and private events as folks slowly restarted in-person activities. He, like many people during that time, had begun more deeply assessing his relationship to his habits, particularly drinking alcohol.

“I try to live an active lifestyle and I realized the days where alcohol consumption was part of my job weren’t really aligning with my lifestyle anymore,” Ramos says. “I was never big on alcohol, but I was socially drinking, and selling beer was my job, being a little drunk a couple nights a week. I didn’t like the feeling, I really didn’t like feeling hungover, and COVID was a deciding factor [in drinking] for a lot of people.”

Developing the concept and menus for Up Elevated steadied his focus while inspiring other avenues of cannabis-friendly social activations, including run club Runners High Chicago, yoga classes, and a chess club — disrupting the “lonely, lazy stoner” stereotype. Finding a new path in the community feels like the bet on himself is paying off. Last year, Up Elevated hosted events in six states, including California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Colorado, and appeared at MJ Biz Con — the nation’s largest marijuana and cannabis conference and expo, held in Las Vegas. It also participated in January’s Chicago’s No I.D. alcohol-free cocktail competition and tasting event at Artifact Events.

“I’d had the idea since 2018 after I’d worked a couple events with the Herbal Notes collective and seeing how chef Manny [Mendoza] brought to life the beautiful culinary experience for cannabis, I wanted to create that mixology equivalent, because I didn’t see that,” Ramos says. “I didn’t see beautiful cannabis cocktails — if anything, there were alcoholic cocktails still being served at weed events. Even still, now, it’s the landscape where it’s a weed event, but it’s at a bar, you have to buy from their bar. I saw the niche for this.”

He adds, “Another theme of Up Elevated is believing that people who don’t consume alcohol should have better choices than juice, water, or soda. A lot of times, when you go to a bar or somewhere and you sit down and say you’re not drinking alcohol, that kind of ends your service experience. We give just as awesome of an experience if you want to drink alcohol, cannabis, or neither.”

Ramos describes his use of cannabis and THC-infused products as similar to using bitters or carbonated mixers as opposed to making them the hero ingredient. It’s what drew one of his newest supporters, the aforementioned Uncle Arnie’s.

Uncle Arnie’s has plans to join the Chicago market later this year. Founder Ave Miller stumbled upon Up Elevated’s Instagram profile in 2023 and connected with the hope that Ramos’s creativity would inspire consumers to reconsider their cannabis experience. Miller says “most people aren’t even educated” about cannabis beverages, placing Up Elevated at the leading edge of an emerging market: “Most edibles are usually way too high-cost or not as effective because most people are fooled by the 500 milligram Laffy Taffy bar,” Miller says. “Liquid beverages are a really great way to introduce high-dose people to recreational markets. Because of the water-soluble technology and increased bioavailability, 100 milligrams really feels like 150 milligrams because of how your body processes it.”

While making sure the community has space to gather, create, and indulge — it’s never solely been about getting high. Working toward complete legalization of cannabis (the plant) and advocating for more equitable access to resources for Black and Brown, small, craft growers and brands — those most impacted by this country’s war on drugs — is of equal importance. Ramos knows this first-hand, having been arrested in 2007 for selling on Purdue University’s campus in West Lafayette, Indiana, when he was a sophomore. For 12 years, Ramos had felony convictions on his record, which made finding a corporate job nearly impossible. That led him to the craft beer industry, where his honesty about his background wasn’t a detriment.

A member of the newly founded Illinois Cannabis Consumption Association, Ramos and like-minded individuals are also coming together to address and promote efforts around the legality of on-premise cannabis consumption and the minted “cannabis hospitality industry.” While there are legal, onsite consumption lounges in Illinois in towns such as Wheeling and Mundelein, Chicago doesn’t permit consumption outside of private properties or licensed dispensaries, and public consumption remains illegal.

“Chicago is likely gonna make it difficult and costly to do these things,” Ramos explains. “Most of the events that happen around cannabis are technically unsanctioned. For me and my events, we try to keep things as compliant as possible. Some safeguards are 21-and-over, private, ticketed or members only, no direct sales of the plant itself. I’ve cultivated relationships with alderpeople who would like to see day permits for cannabis events, as they realize they are happening and want to mitigate involvement of law enforcement for a plant that’s supposed to be legal in Illinois. It makes no sense that we can buy cannabis, but can’t consume it without being in fear of the law.”

Arms going into a bucket.

In 2021, he connected via LinkedIn with Steven Philpott Jr., a former Marine and current biology PhD student at North Carolina State University who studies crop and soil sciences with a focus on cannabis, and the two started collaborating and building the education and justice element of Up Elevated Cocktails. With a background in sports medicine and coaching, Philpott became an advocate for cannabis for stress and pain management on a personal level before doing so professionally.

“There’s 120 to 200 kinds of cannabinoids that exist. We only really talk about THC, but all the other ones have health benefits too,” Philpott says. “That’s what me and Carlos do. Cannabis is not just THC.”

Philpott sees an opportunity through Up Elevated to spread awareness about alternatives to alcohol and smoking cannabis. He says it should be viewed as a supplement purchased at a vitamin store. “As I get older, I’m like, ‘I would love to find another way to consume.’ So when I saw Carlos making drinks, I thought he might be onto something.”

Discussing cannabis in its fullest terms also helps the two get around legality concerns when Up Elevated Cocktails pops up in states that have yet to embrace recreational or medical use. Philpott joined Ramos at this year’s South by Southwest music festival for an activation dubbed “Sound Bites” on March 9, which combined music, cannabis, and education in a state that’s long opposed legalization but where hemp-derived products like delta-8 have flourished.

A man in an apron with holding a measuring jig.
Ramos has high hopes for his operation.

Ramos chose to use “non-THC, minor cannabinoids” during his trip to Texas. “Hemp-derived is legal in all 50 states. We can still give the education, the experience with music and drinks … [and] be within the parameters of what we need to be in that state.”

Looking ahead, Ramos hopes Up Elevated Cocktails can serve as a bridge between casual consumption and real-world implications of lingering, federal cannabis restrictions for those who still haven’t been able to gain a stronger foothold in the now-corporate, regulated industry; this would help foster a deeper sense of community where success is available to those who’ve paid a higher price for being on the cultural frontlines for decades.

“There’s no shortage of weed parties, but I don’t see a whole lot of well-rounded programming really building community, which is what we’re trying to come into our own and do,” he says.

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