kava is traditionally served in a coconut shell garnished with a pineapple wedge photo by lauren healey

Alcohol alternatives to boost your mood

A new wave of beverages is gaining popularity, offering ways to catch a different kind of buzz with ingredients like kava, kratom and cannabidiol (CBD).

Synergy Smoothie & Elixir Bar, an upscale, bohemian hangout with a free-spirited vibe, offers some of these alternatives in Midtown.

“People are valuing what they put in their bodies and are willing to invest in themselves; they come in for the smoothies, but they stumble upon all the other things we have to offer,” said Synergy co-owner Joe Bill. “There’s nothing here that will blow you away or make you feel uncomfortable, but some will ease your mind and relax you, while others are more stimulating.”

Kava, a cold-brewed tea made from a plant native to the South Pacific, has been enjoyed and used ceremonially for centuries. It’s increasingly popular internationally for its psychotropic effects.

“It’s calming, reduces stress and anxiety, and opens up lines of communication, so it’s a great social lubricant,” Bill said. “The effect lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple hours, but it doesn’t take away your motor skills, so you’re safe to drive.” Some recovering alcoholics use kava as an alternative to alcohol since it is relaxing but not incapacitating.

Traditionally served in a coconut shell with a pineapple wedge, kava can be mixed to improve its taste, which has a bitter minerality. Synergy subdues the earthy flavor in cocktails like the Kava Colada with pineapple, coconut milk, lime and agave. Unfortunately, the bar has closed its brick-and-mortar due to the effects of the pandemic, but will continue to sell kava on its website and potentially at shops around St. Louis. You will be able to make favorites like the pineapple, strawberry or blueberry kava sodas at home with bottles of concentrated kava combined with house-made syrups.

Synergy also offers beverages featuring kratom (called mitra on its menu), another plant derivative from Southeast Asia.

“It’s a powerful medicine that tastes a bit more bitter and has a stronger effect than kava, but we only offer very mindful doses. It’s something that needs to be respected and not abused,” Bill said. He mentioned that people recovering from opioid addiction will try kratom to aid their rehabilitation. “The green kratom is a stimulant, and the red is more relaxing, but they both give you a feeling of euphoria. … It’s not a good idea to mix kava or kratom with alcohol; it can be hard on the stomach.”

Due to limited regulations, the quality and strength of these products can vary greatly, so make sure you buy from a trusted source. And if kava and kratom aren’t your cup of tea, there are more entry-level ways to imbibe.

“Most people have heard of CBD and its calming and anti-anxiety effects, which brings a lot of people in, but cacao is another big part of our business,” Bill said. “It’s raw, unprocessed chocolate from South America, and it has a stimulating effect similar to caffeine but softer and lighter.” Synergy offers cacao in the bottled herbal concentrate Heart Wide Open potion, which incorporates almond milk, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and cinnamon.

St. Louis is home to an increasing number of adult nightlife alternatives as people seek new ways to relax sans booze. Along with other health-focused juice shops that sell kava, like Rootbound in Clayton, there are places like Kickin’ it with Kava in St. Charles that provide more of a traditional bar atmosphere. The chain CBD Kratom now has several locations in the area, and with the legalization of medical marijuana in Missouri and recreational marijuana in Illinois, options are expanding even more. Cherokee Street is poised to become St. Louis’ own Green Light District, with a concentration of new dispensaries opening this year.