by Andrew Arnett

I’m at Kavasutra and there is an Ed Shell double shot of kava with a wedge of pineapple in front of me. I’ve been instructed by the bartender to raise the kava high, utter the traditional toast “bula”, and drink the whole thing down in one gulp.

Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett

“Sometimes,” the bartender says, “If you don’t drink the entire shot in one gulp, you can’t finish the rest.”

Kava produces a tingling on the lips and tongue, followed by a mild numbness in the mouth

Kava has a gritty bland flavor. The pineapple is a nice touch, cleansing the palate while leaving a sweet aftertaste. Kava produces a tingling on the lips and tongue, followed by a mild numbness in the mouth. This is due to kavalactones, the main active ingredient in kava.

Kava is derived from the kava plant which is consumed throughout the Polynesian Islands. Studies have shown that kava is effective in treating social anxiety and may serve as a natural replacement for anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals like Xanax. It has been shown to promote sleep, relax muscles and reduce convulsions.

Within minutes I feel the mellow tranquilizing effects take hold.

Kavasutra opened in 2015 and is the first and only kava bar in New York City. It serves other herbal drinks as well, such as the psychoactive kratom, but it serves no alcohol. As the sign in front of the bar says, ‘Alcohol Is So 2014. Try Kava.’ Kava can, for some, become a lifestyle.

Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett

The interior design of the bar is tailor made for that “rooted” feeling, a term denoting the tendency to want to stay put after downing a few shots of kava. A TV behind the bar shows animal documentaries and Tiki art adorns the walls. Ambient music is streamed through Pandora.

Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett

“The lights are always turned down low here,” the bartender tells me.

“Do you think kava will catch on with the public at large?” I ask.

“It’s already blowing up,” he says. “In North America in the last six years it’s gone from five or six kava bars to like 30 or 40. Just ask John, he is a kava farmer.”

John is sitting next to me nursing a kava shell.

Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett

“Kava grows on tropical, volcanic islands,” John tells me, “There are soil solidity, rainfall and shade issues you have to deal with. A decent amount of underground water, not so much surface ground water, because you don’t want the roots to grow out and get thin.”

“Sounds like Hawaii would be an ideal place,” I offer.

“That’s where my farm is,” he says. “From a small plant, you get a tiny amount of roots. If you wait ten years, then you get a whole shitload of roots and it is only from the roots of the plant that you get kava, so you want big, fat, thick, heavy roots.”

Also available at Kavasutra is kratom, a psychoactive leaf derived from Mitragyna speciosa, a deciduous, evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia and is a member of the coffee family.

Picture: @AndrewArnett
Picture: @AndrewArnett

There is a gentleman sitting at the bar named Larry. He is drinking a tea made from kratom.

“It [Kratom] enhances work, sexual performance and it helps withdrawal from hard drugs.”

“Kratom gets you in the zone,” Larry explains to me, “What I mean by that is, if you’re sitting down watching TV, it gets you into the zone. Same thing with work, if that’s what you’re doing, it gets you into the zone.”

I order myself a glass of kratom tea. Within minutes, I feel a warm, calming sensation take hold. Its effects are even more distinct than kava.

“It is a healthy alternative to hard drugs,” Frank tells us. “It enhances work, sexual performance and it helps withdrawal from hard drugs.”

Kratom acts as a μ-opioid receptor agonist similar to the opium plant which means it is excellent at neutralizing pain. Because it is not an opioid, it has been used effectively to treat opioid withdrawal and addiction.

“To be honest,” Larry continues,  “I don’t think the kratom community wants people to know about it. Kratom so good they don’t want the general public to ruin their good thing.”

It may be too late to keep kratom under wraps. Recently, the New York Times and Business Insider published articles that were critical of kratom, citing its potential for addiction.  But these stories have the feel of the Reefer Madness anti-marijuana hype from years past, inciting fear with little basis in scientific research.

The fact is kratom and kava have been used for centuries with no ill effects and there have been no reported cases of death by overdose in the United States.

The fact is kratom and kava have been used for centuries with no ill effects and there have been no reported cases of death by overdose in the United States.

Though kratom is considered not dangerous, there are side effects which may result when taking 10-20x the recommended dosage. It can cause dizziness, fatigue, nausea or constipation. There have been some reports of a “Kratom Hangover” the morning after consumption which is indicated by a headache, anxiety, or irritability. A tolerance to its effects may develop and it could be habit forming over long periods. One should control ones use and, like all psychoactive herbs, moderation is the key.

“Kratom is legal everywhere except where it’s produced, in Thailand,” the bartender tells me, “The only reason it’s outlawed in Thailand is because kratom is used to come off of opiates. If you know anything about Thailand then you know their government is heavily funding the heroin production.”

The bartender does a head count, then announces “Everyone gets a free shot of kava.”  The drinks are served and we all raise our kava shells in unison saying “bula!”

At this point I’m feeling perfectly enmeshed with my tropical surroundings. And why not? We are, after all, living on an island. The island of Manhattan, right?

Kavasutra Kava Bar is located at 261 EAST 10th STREET – NEW YORK NY, 10009. More locations can be found on the Kavasutra website.