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Warren Bobrow, CEO & Co-Founder of Klaus

An Interview with Warren Bobrow, CEO & Co-Founder of Klaus, The Gnome

By Aaron Green
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Warren Bobrow, CEO & Co-Founder of Klaus

California is the fastest-growing cannabis beverage market, according to a recent Headset report. The count of beverage product offerings in California has grown quickly, nearly doubling from 2020 to 2021. As of December 2021, there were approximately 530 distinct cannabis beverage offerings.

Mocktails have been a growing product category within the cannabis beverage segment. Klaus, headed up by Warren Bobrow, the “Cocktail Whisperer,” recently entered the California market with their ready-to-drink THC cocktail, Mezzrole, a unique terpene-forward beverage with three simple culinary-grade ingredients.

We caught up with Warren to learn more about his path to the cannabis industry and his inspiration for Mezzrole. Warren is a multi-published author of six books including “Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, and Tonics” and has contributed to publications such as Forbes and Skunk Magazine. After the loss of his fresh pasta business in Hurricane Hugo, he worked in banking for 20 years before reinventing himself and following his passions—becoming a bar back to bartender and master mixologist and penning his six cocktail-focused books. Warren crafted Klaus with knowledge gained from years of experience in the mixology and culinary worlds and with his strong enthusiasm for cannabis.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Warren Bobrow: It was a happenstance, and it was something that I never considered before. I was working in the traditional liquor industry, and because liquor is inherently a poisonous substance, I was slowly poisoning myself and my mind with the alcohol. I made a conscious decision back in July of 2018 – I was down to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans – and I said, “this is my last drink.” I was halfway through a Hemingway, which is absolutely my favorite cocktail to have and that’s what I was known for. That’s the drink that paved the way to a wonderful career on-premises and off-premises doing brand ambassadorship and being a named person within the liquor industry. As with all great careers, this one had to come to an end, or I was going to die because liquor was poisoning me. I was probably about 75 pounds heavier than I am right now. I just didn’t feel myself and I was going to be sick.

So, I decided to take my knowledge of cannabis, which was something that I’ve enjoyed since I was 12 years old – I am 61 now – and put it to use for me in this book, Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails and Tonics. My first book, Apothecary Cocktails, really did pave the way. I wanted to include cannabis in my early books, but my publisher wouldn’t let me. It just wasn’t time until 2015 when I wrote Cannabis Cocktails, which is all based on the early apothecary. The inspiration for writing the book certainly was from being down in New Orleans and going to the Pharmacy Museum. They had an exhibition of cannabis in the early apothecary, and I knew immediately what I was going to do with the rest of my life. There you have it!

Green: It seems like it was a sharp cut off with the alcohol industry

Bobrow: Yes, like one day to the next, literally. It was absolute. I made the decision; I came back to New Jersey, and I never drank again. I drink a little beer and wine, but I haven’t had a distilled drink in years.

Green: How did the concept for Klaus come about? Was it something that you always had in the back of your mind?

Bobrow: The idea for creating a cannabis infused beverage came from being incarcerated in New York City for smoking cannabis in the street and being taken out of commission for 48 hours, I knew that if I was drinking a cannabis infused beverage like Klaus, which is the one that I created in California, no one would know my business. Of course, when this happened, it was in the early 2000s, so the technology and the pretense just weren’t available yet. But it did put something in my mind. If I was to create a cannabis-infused beverage using my knowledge and experience as a master mixologist, the fear of consuming cannabis would be diminished.

If you look at the book, Cannabis Cocktails, and you see the recipes, they’re not for the meek. They’re really meant for a medical community – someone who needs to really eliminate pain, if you will. Cocktails in the book started at about 250 milligrams of THC, whereas with Klaus they’re 10 milligrams, Two different stories completely!

Warren Bobrow, CEO & Co-Founder of Klaus

My inspiration for creating Klaus certainly was from the gnome [Warren displays Klaus, The Gnome]. He’s a star and he’s been all over the world with me. I don’t know why I first started traveling with him. Maybe it’s because he was sitting up there up on my mantle and he told me that he wanted to go out on the road with me. I was traveling all over the world as a rum judge for the Ministry of Rum and for Rum XP. We just show up at food events. I’m a trained chef, I love going to the Fancy Food Show in New York City, and I’d meet people and they invite me out to see their places. Then I started writing for Forbes and I don’t know, my career has been up and down. I’ve tried to follow my dreams ever since I left the corporate world in May of 2009.

Green: Let’s talk about the product.

Bobrow: I just have one SKU right now, which is the Mezzrole named for Mezz Mezzrow, Louis Armstrong’s weed dealer. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s all real.

Green: First, how did you land on the flavor profile?

Bobrow: For someone who’s a rum head like myself, we used to drink rum for breakfast. That’s how you become a rum head. The Mezzrole is based on a Ti’ Punch, which is the national drink of Martinique. Ti’ Punch is usually made in Martinique with rum Agricole, which is a sugar cane-based rum rather than a molasses-based rum. It’s the freshly pressed sugar cane rum before it ferments so it has a lovely floral quality and it’s 100 proof. There’s nothing weak about it!

A Ti’ Punch is freshly squeezed lime quarters, the 100 proof Agricole – one or two ounces – and cane sugar syrup stirred usually with your finger like my old friend Gaz Regan, who’s no longer with us, used to do it. He was known for his finger stirred negronis. I would do it preferably in a clean glass and there’s no ice involved because if you’re on a sailboat, you probably don’t have ice anyway. So, it’s potent. It’s a very potent drink. That’s the basis of the Mezzrole.

The Mezzrole contains a single strain of cannabis. We used a craft, land-raised strain called Hippie Crasher. It’s an indica leaning hybrid that is terpene forward. The Mezzrole utilizes the terpene aromatics of the cannabis strain. So, we have this gorgeous French lime puree that I get made from limes that are sourced down in Martinique. They have a certain oily quality to them and they’re very pungent. They’re very citrus forward and very flavorful.

Then, I’m using a ginger syrup that’s made in what I would say is a Great Britain or Jamaican style called Picketts. It’s from Denver, Colorado. My old friend Matt Pickett, and his late brother Jim created it. Jim was the bartender for Malcolm Forbes on his yacht, the Highlander, when they had it in the waters between me and Palm Beach, or wherever they happened to be on the island. Jim crafted this incredible ginger syrup, which is really authentic. And in later years, it became the Pickett’s ginger syrup that I would use in this beverage because I’m paying homage to Matt’s brother by using his extra hot and spicy ginger syrup in here along with the French lime purée.

The final element – there are only three flavor elements [besides the cannabis] – is rice vinegar. Rice vinegar in this case is something called mirin. There are two different types of mirin. There’s the sweet mirin and then there’s the dry mirin, and Mezzrole utilizes the dry mirin. I didn’t want to add any sugar. Mezzrole is six tenths of a gram of sugar for the entire can, which is eight ounces, 16 calories.

So, to recap, each can of Mezzrole is eight fluid ounces, six tenths of a gram of sugar, ginger, lime and rice vinegar with THC infusion. And it’s not a seltzer!

Green: What was special to you about the Ti’ Punch?

Bobrow: My family had a yacht, and we would go places in the Caribbean. One of the places we would go in the Caribbean was Down Island and they would have drinks like the Ti’ Punch. I remember that it was emblazoned in my brain. It was a drink that got me drunk. It was what sailors did; they got drunk. And you would get drunk on drinks that go back to the days of the pirates, because they probably didn’t have ice on the sailing vessels. So, why should a couple million-dollar yacht make any difference? We had icemakers, but you drink the drink without ice. You drink it like it was drunk in the age of sailing.

I wanted to reinterpret the Ti’ Punch and bring credence and life to that drink by bringing it to life in the Mezzrole. But the Mezzrole has another story behind it entirely. That’s because Mezz Mezzrow, who was a jazz head during the jazz era, brought between two and 4,000 pounds of cannabis up from Mexico, and sold it in Detroit, Chicago and Harlem during the early days of jazz. He made quite a name for himself. At the time, cannabis was not illegal on a national level yet. If you were to ask for a joint or reefer, you might become detained by the police, especially if you were Black.  Not only were the police at that time incredibly anti-jazz and anti-Black and anti-cannabis, but they were just anti people having fun! So there had to be code names and a well-rolled cannabis cigarette was known as a “Mezzrole” and that’s what I named the cocktail after.

I’m paying homage to Louis, and I’m friendly with Louis’ daughter, Sharon. She’s the daughter that no one ever knew about. It’s a very interesting story. We’re hopefully going to do something together. I find great inspiration in jazz, and we wanted to pay homage to the role of characters in jazz by creating a beverage that hopefully wouldn’t get us arrested.

Green: Can you walk me through your choice of strain for the beverage?

Bobrow: I work with a company named Vertosa. They are the magicians in the world of nanotechnology emulsions. They’re scientists like yourself, who are upper intellects who dream in color. And the colors that they’ve chosen are the colors of the plant. So, they’ve enlivened the plant chemically through their process. I’m not privy to that process, but I’ll tell you it works. Their emulsion is gorgeous stuff. I just chose the emulsion for my next two SKUs and it’s exactly what I was looking for. It’s slightly bitter, it has depth and character, and we haven’t even added the terpenes in yet. So, it’s well balanced, and it will work exceptionally well with the craft ingredients that I’m working with. I don’t use industrialized ingredients, these are all bartending ingredients, if you will. We do 5,000 can production runs with bartending ingredients. It’s incredible food science. I love it.

Green: What was behind your decision in adding the terpene flavors?

Bobrow: What makes that interesting is no one else is doing it. So, we’re the first again! Not only did I write the first book on cannabis, and cocktails, and tonics, and all that stuff, but I created the first beverage that actually smells like cannabis. So, when you’re drinking one of my beverages, and you drink down maybe a quarter inch, and you put your nose right over the top and smell it, it smells just like the plant along with that ginger and the lime and that tangy quality of the mirin. And it’s spicy. It has an herbaceous quality to it. It’s really uncanny.

Green: Were there any challenges in working with terpenes in a beverage?

Bobrow: Yes, there’s always challenges. First off, I’m here in New Jersey, and the company that I’m working with is in California, so they can’t send me anything. So, I work very closely with a food scientist named Chris Anderson who did my scalability, and he’s absolutely brilliant. His palate mimics my own. I don’t want a sweet beverage. I want a tangy beverage. I want something that has balanced quality and fun and it makes you want to dance. I’m not looking for something to put me to sleep. That’s not my goal in life. Life is very short, and you want to have a beverage that is talkative and doesn’t get you totally destroyed. There are beverages out on the market that have 500 milligrams of THC called syrups. They’re absolutely delicious, but they’re so destructive because they want you to put them in a sugary beverage and drink the whole thing down.

I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t drink like a kid. I drink with sophisticated flavors and make beverages that are memorable. People come to me – and have since the early part of 2009 – and they say things like, “That’s the best cocktail I’ve ever had in my life. How do you do that?” My aim in life is to ruin people for their bartender because I expose all the things that our bartenders are doing to rip them off.

I started as a bar back and I worked my way up. I went to this guy named Chris James, who was working at The Ryland Inn running their beverage program. I needed a job, and he hired me as this bar back for a year and they kicked my butt. After that I could write about this stuff with knowledge and not just with something I read in a book. There’s a lot to be said for education and going to bartending school. There’s also a lot to be said for cutting your own ice and squeezing your own juice and taking out the trash.

Green: What are some of the challenges you are facing at Klaus?

Bobrow: We’re hoping to do a Series A round of financing. I wonder who would be interested in lending to us or giving us money or investing in us. I always wonder why anyone would be interested in any of this! But I have a talent and a passion, and I know that it will take me to the next step in life. I’ve waited and been very patient. I have massive shoes to fill, and I’m so committed to being ambitious.

I was an executive assistant in a Trust Bank for 20 years. I put my life on hold for others because they wanted to make an example out of me. I never became the person that my parents wanted me to become. They wanted me to become a lawyer and I didn’t have the aptitude for that. I had the aptitude for being a creative soul and a creative mind. It just took me 20 years longer to be able to achieve that.

I consider myself the luckiest man in the world because I did work for the C-suite and for the top of the house and I sold wine to them when I worked on the nights and weekends in a wine store. My customers were the presidents and “kingmakers of the world.” Here in Northern New Jersey, if nothing else, it’s pretty affluent. So, I’ve long been accustomed to coming from that environment. I know what that environment means and the importance of that environment. I had to figure out how to make it myself because I was, in polite parley, “disowned.” So, I am self-made, and I have a great product that I’ve created out of nowhere. It’s hopefully going to allow me to figure out what the next step will be in my life. I want to make this a national name.

Green: What trends are you following in the cannabis beverage space?

Bobrow: I’ve had some good ones. I’ve had some okay ones. And I’ve had some that are just, I don’t know. I’m a cook. I’m a saucier. I love flavors. I’m trained in France. I cook. It’s a lifelong thing. I started as a dishwasher, and I worked my way up. I’ve traveled the world eating.

I’ll tell you, if you don’t know flavors, you can’t put anything together. And if you don’t know what goes into making a beverage that’s different than what anyone else is doing in the world, then you don’t deserve to be in this business because it’s highly competitive and people play for keeps. If I only get one chance to capture people’s imagination, it comes with this beverage right here [Warren holds up a can of Mezzrole].

Green: What’s next for Klaus?

Bobrow: I hope to be doing Klaus Nein. It’s a terpene forward, non-cannabis infused craft beverage. It doesn’t have any THC, so I can sell it everywhere. I caught the travel bug years ago, when I was traveling all over the world for the rum business. And I got it back again. I hate that the world became such a small place during COVID. Because it really is a big place. And it’s a place that I need to explore more of. Stay tuned!

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Bobrow: You know, it’s funny. I think everyone that I come across I can learn something from. My teachers at Emerson and later at MIT, where I spent a fitful year, taught me that I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but I certainly was the most inquisitive. So, I want to be known as someone who has pretty good listening skills. I also have great skills in the way of trying to draw out answers from people. So, I have a lot to learn and I’m excited about the opportunity of learning. If I can share a little bit of my knowledge with other people within the industry and they respect me for what I’ve achieved, then I’ll be a much happier person. I’m already happy. I’m very lucky. I am the luckiest guy in the room.

Green: Thank you Warren. That concludes the interview!

Ask the Experts: The Business of Cannabis Meets the Law

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Practicing Law Institute Press’s Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is a one-of-a-kind deep dive into the many regulations governing the industry. Aimed at attorneys representing clients in this space, the treatise offers guidance on a range of interrelated topics including state regulation of medical and non-medical cannabis; federal law, enforcement and preemption and their implications for employment, taxes and banking; and the various aspects of establishing and managing a cannabis enterprise, from growth to licensing, transport and distribution. We spoke with co-authors James T. O’Reilly, professor of Public Health Policy at the College of Medicine of the University of Cincinnati and author of leading references on food and drug law, and Edgar J. Asebey, a founding partner of Keller Asebey Life Science Law and a life sciences attorney with over twenty years of experience, about the intersection of the cannabis business and the law.

Q: From the legal industry’s perspective, how has this area of the law evolved over the past few years – and what would you advise clients in cannabis to look for when engaging legal assistance for their businesses?

James T. O’Reilly & Edgar J. Asebey: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing acceptance of the idea that lawfully serving the needs of cannabis consumers is a commendable business initiative. This evolution in thinking – tied to the myriad business opportunities cannabis presents – has given large, mainstream corporate law firms the incentive to grow practices and develop specialists in this area, which is a very positive development.

But it is not enough for lawyers to know their way around M&A and the capital markets; they must also have experience with federal regulatory bodies. As regulations continue to evolve, it is essential for practitioners to be familiar with the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act as well as the Federal Trade Commission Act. The framework for regulating cannabis products already exists, as can be seen in the Warning Letters sent to hemp and CBD companies by both the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration (as well as, most recently, the FDA and CDC’s warning about delta-8 THC). If a client places their hemp or CBD product into the stream of commerce, that product will be subject to FDA, FTC and relevant state laws. We strongly recommend seeking out advisors who truly understand these regulations and how they align with the regulatory agencies’ procedures and agendas.

Q: What are the most urgent legal and regulatory topics the industry is watching these days?

O’Reilly & Asebey: Our treatise follows and analyzes the most pressing legal issues facing those in the cannabis and hemp space. In our most recent edition, we add discussion of the Final Rule for the establishment of a domestic hemp production program. We think this is a significant development in that it attempted to address some of the industry’s criticism of some provisions found in the Interim Final Rule, par­ticularly around issues of sampling and testing for THC content. The Final Rule clarified issues around THC percentage testing methodologies, but disappointed many in the industry by leaving in place the low 0.3% dry weight threshold for an acceptable hemp THC level. On the other hand, The Final Rule raises the threshold for a negligent violation from 0.5% to 1.0% total THC and limits the number of violations a grower can receive in one year to one, easing potential penalties for violations.

Of course, the regulation of CBD products is on the minds of many in the industry. Key questions remain about whether cannabinoids such as delta-8 THC can be lawfully sold. Since the FDA has provided no clear guidance with regard to the sale and use of CBD and other hemp-derived cannabinoid-containing prod­ucts, well-meaning businesses find themselves operating in a regulatory gray area. While some states have raced to place delta-8 THC on their controlled substances lists or otherwise regulate it, at the federal level it remains unclear. Our book provides a legal argument showing that current regulations support the lawful production and sale of delta-8 THC. To date, this and other legal arguments have not been tested in the courts and, without FDA guidance, the delta-8 THC sector will remain gray.

Editor’s Note: The Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is now available for purchase here.

About James T. O’Reilly

James T. O’Reilly of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine is former chair of the 8,000-member Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice of the American Bar Association and has been active in numerous ABA, Federal Bar Association, and state and local bar activities. He retired as Associate General Counsel of The Procter & Gamble Company to teach full-time, and served as a consultant to three federal agencies and to the Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission. He has authored fifty-six texts and more than 230 articles, and his work was cited numerous times in appellate opinions, including “The experts have written . . . ” in a March 2000 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court (Food & Drug Administration v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 120 S. Ct. 1291). He has received numerous honors and awards for his professional and electoral activities and has been listed in Who’s Who in American Law for twenty-five years. He is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law.

About Edgar J. Asebey

Edgar J. Asebey, a partner at Asebey Life Sciences Law PLLC, is a regulatory and transactional attorney with over two decades of experience in federal regulation of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, food, dietary supplement and cosmetics companies. Since 2015, he has been working on cannabis-related matters and transactions, and since 2018, he has provided regulatory compliance, business transactional, venture finance and international trade services to hemp/CBD companies. Mr. Asebey practices before the FDA, the USDA, the CBP, the EPA, and the FTC, representing client companies on regulatory compliance, product approval/registration and FDA enforcement defense matters. He founded and served as president of Andes Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a natural products drug discovery company, from 1994 to 2000, and has served as in-house counsel to two life sciences companies. Mr. Asebey is a member of the American Bar Association (Section on Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice: Food and Drug Committee and International Committee), the Food & Drug Law Institute (FDLI), the Dade County Bar Association, and BioFlorida.

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