High dining doesn't always have to go along with getting high. When I went to a terpene-infused three-course dinner at Prank Bar in downtown L.A., I noticed I felt calm and satisfied at the end of the meal — but not high.
I'd sipped on cocktails flavored with lemon, apricot, raspberry, limonene (a citrusy terp) and myrcene (a terp found in mangoes, bay leaves, lemongrass and basil), and had munched on gourmet dishes including hamachi crudo, infused with limonene, and Caprese salad, infused with linalool (one of the main terpenes in cannabis, also found in lavender and coriander). Other dishes included lobster bucatini with limonene and filet mignon with myrcene.
By now it should be clear that a terpene is what gives plants, including fruits, cannabis and herbs, their odor and flavor. These aromatic compounds, similar to essential oils, not only give each plant its unique character but also are therapeutic in their own right, functioning as anti-inflammatories, anti-carcinogens, anxiolytics and so forth.
While THC is responsible for getting you high, terpenes determine the distinct quality of that high. What distinguishes heady sativas from body-high indicas is heavily rooted in a strain's terpene profile, alongside its ratio of cannabinoids like THC, CBD, CBN and so forth.
"Without terpenes, there would be no difference between indicas, hybrids, etc. — it would just be THC," says Brent Borrow, owner and CEO of Terp Science Labs in L.A. "It's the blend of terpenes that makes the different varieties."
With the cannabis market expanding, consumers are becoming interested in the plant's offerings beyond just THC. While cannaseurs may be particular about the terpene profile of a particular variety, novice consumers may be looking for a way to reap some of the plant's benefits minus the psychoactive effect. "You can use them in food, as essential oils, or take strand-specific terpene distillates and put them back" into a blend of cannabinoid distillates, Borrow explains.
Dave Whitton, owner of Prank Bar, says he's always wanted to incorporate terpenes into food, but because his expertise is first and foremost with cocktails, he wanted to understand terpenes better before experimenting with pairing flavors in dishes.
Limonene is the most versatile terpene, he says, thanks to its "bitter orange flavor that works beautifully with citrus-forward cocktails and is perfect for summer." And for the fall, Whitton likes to use myrcene, with its "comforting clove flavor that complements spiced cocktails."
On the other hand, he says the most challenging terpene to work with is linalool. "It is so powerful, just one drop can completely overwhelm a dish," Whitton says. "Linalool has a wonderful lavender/floral flavor, so it works well in desserts and sweeter dishes."
Whitton has been a fixture in L.A.'s cocktail community for nearly two decades. He's bartended, managed, owned and consulted at some of L.A.'s most prominent locations, including Seven Grand, the Sunset Marquis Hotel and Dodger Stadium, all before opening Prank Bar in 2017.
But with Prank, Whitton's goal is a little different: The team wants to educate guests about the health benefits of terpenes, imbuing dishes with a little something extra beyond what's typical for L.A. health nuts. This isn't your average Angeleno health food. It's infused with a whole science the general public is only now just starting to learn about.
"A majority of our guests don't know anything about terpenes," says Whitton, while others are cannabis nerds. "We love introducing terpenes to them, whether it's through our kombucha, cocktails or food. Once we start to discuss terpenes and their range of health benefits, as well as the lack of THC, they become so curious and come back time and time again to try different strands."
The terpenes, which essentially come in the form of oil distillates, are added into the dishes or cocktails at the end of the preparation. Especially with food, it's important to wait until the end because terpenes can't be heated above 140 degrees without compromising their health benefits, Whitton says.
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"An important thing to know about terpenes is that they really must be diluted with food or liquids," he says. "The oils aren't meant to be taken alone, and they have extremely strong flavors, so it wouldn't taste good either."
While he says there are no known risks with terpenes, consuming excessive amounts of the straight oil can result in a stomach ache. Whitton says he would never advise someone to consume that much at one time.
"Terpenes are like vitamins — there are so many different types that benefit different aspects of people's health," he says. "I believe that as people learn more about terpenes, the more prevalent they'll become."