WEST HAVEN — Inside a small warehouse in West Haven surrounded by stainless steel tables are bottles full of liquids with labels which say things like “strawberry,” “marshmallow” and “dragonfruit.” Except for a couple graduated cylinders, there isn’t much else.
It’s a simple setup at first glance, but it’s where the vape e-liquids are made for Mixdlabs.
Christian Martinez, 29, poured thick clear liquid from a graduated cylinder into a large pitcher carefully one afternoon in April.
“There are a lot of headaches but at the end of the day, we all have one common goal which is to get the consumer off of traditional cigarettes and lead a happier life,” he said.
Martinez started mixing e-liquids for himself in 2014 because at the time, buying them was too expensive. He joined a few online communities dedicated to the process and ended up opening up a vape shop in 2015. That shop has since closed and Martinez consolidated his operation to the space in West Haven where he still makes the liquids by hand and sells them online and in local stores.
“You start to get an idea after a while how to make your own,” he said. “You think, ‘OK, I’m going to try strawberry and watermelon together now’ and just start to build that flavor profile.”
E-liquid, also known as e-juice or vape liquid, is the fluid used inside vaporizers or atomizers that when heated up and inhaled, turns to vapor. They come in a variety of flavors with nicotine and non-nicotine.
Martinez makes his all by hand. After measuring out the base and adding Pur Nic Salt with a syringe for accuracy, he adds the flavor. Unlike flavors available at the grocery store, which are suspended in alcohol, these are suspended in propylene glycol and typically used in drinks and candy. After that, he adds a thinning and thickening agent. Everything is measured by weight.
“It’s thick, it’s like molasses, you see that?” he said, adding the thickening agent vegetable glycerin. “Because if not it’s so thin it would leak out of their device. It just wouldn’t be good.”
Once all of the ingredients are added and the pitcher is full, Martinez uses a motorized mixer to stir the liquid thoroughly for about 20 minutes, waiting for minuscule bubbles to appear signaling the process is done.
Martinez said mixing for too long will cause some of the liquid to start to evaporate.
After the mixing is complete, Martinez said he then ages his e-liquids in a cool, dark place for anywhere from one to three weeks in gallon jugs. Some, depending on the flavor, will gradually change color.
“It’s almost like a culinary art,” Martinez said.
The process only takes about 45 minutes, but that doesn’t include any of the behind-the-scenes work Martinez has to do to be compliant with county, state and federal regulations.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law in 2009, gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products. This was expanded in 2016 to include all tobacco-related products including electronic nicotine delivery systems, more commonly known as vape pens or electronic cigarettes.
Among many things, Martinez has to keep detailed records of every ingredient he uses in every batch and every flavor of e-liquid — from Best Effin Grape to Best Effin Barrels — has to be registered with the FDA. He also wears a hair and beard net, along with a lab coat while he mixes.
“I have 770 different variant flavors they expect me to have a paper filled out for each one,” Martinez said.
Martinez said it’s frustrating to have to work around oft-changing rules and regulations.
“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t feel burdened by these crippling regulations,” he said. “The answer is that I just try to stay positive hope for the best. I understand that I’m dealing with a bumpy road that may or may not break, but I live life in the moment, day by day.”
The FDA released a proposal in March aiming to restrict the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes and shortened the deadline to review flavored nicotine products in an attempt to curb appeal to underage users.
Weber-Morgan Health Department representatives and school officials have also expressed concern for the number of young vape users. David Burt, student services coordinator for the Weber School District, told the Standard-Examiner in March some students even try to vape in classrooms.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced a bill in late April that would raise the legal smoking age nationwide to 21. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has also voiced support.
Martinez said the idea behind vaping is to get users away from traditional cigarettes, which contain cancer-causing chemicals. As vaping is a newer phenomenon, the full impacts aren’t yet known, though according to data published by Stanford University, nicotine consumption in adolescents can cause changes in the brain that make lifelong addiction more likely.
Digital Smoke general manager AJ Garcia said their Ogden store sells e-liquids they make themselves. There are limits to how much nicotine can be in one bottle of liquid, and Garcia said mixing their own allows them to personalize flavors and sell smaller bottles, which have higher nicotine limits.
Garcia said customers like having more control over nicotine levels and flavors.
“There’s more variety, more options,” he said.
Other local vape shops, like Gourmet Vapor, have quit manufacturing their own e-liquids due to FDA restrictions and regulations, according to the company’s website.
Martinez said he has spent months filing the required paperwork, as he needs prior market authorization from the FDA to do anything, including something as minor as changing bottle sizes.
“I miss the good old days where we could say ‘Hey, let’s make this flavor, see what our customers think and roll it out!’” he said.
Martinez has plans to open another vape shop in the Layton area in the next year and move his mixing operations there with the help of friend Job Black. He also has professional dreams of an automated e-liquid mixing system if the business grows. That way if the FDA ultimately bans vaping, he would have a more wide-ranging skill set.
“I don’t want all my eggs in one basket, you know?” he said. “We’ll see.”