Thanks to kombucha’s purported health benefits, the bubbly, living beverage has become the signature drink of the wellness crowd. But don’t underestimate kombucha’s role behind the bar. The probiotic-packed low-ABV drink offers up a unique flavor profile—sparkly, tangy and tart—that lends itself well to cocktails. “Kombucha also has such elegant levels of acidity,” says Massimo Zitti, the proprietor of fermentation-focused Toronto bar Mother, which was a finalist for Tales of the Cocktail Best International Bar in 2020.
When applied to drinks, the fermented beverage adds funk, acid and effervescence to Collins-style or highball-style drinks and other cocktails. Best of all, if you have a bit of time on your hands; you can make gallons of kombucha yourself inexpensively.
Using Kombucha in Cocktails
Kombucha’s unique tartness and funkiness pose a learning curve when integrating the beverage into cocktails. It takes balance to not overwhelm a drink with its strong flavors. Start by swapping it in place of the carbonated element in highballs. Replace soda with a neutral-flavored kombucha in a Vodka Soda, or reach for a ginger kombucha in a Moscow Mule or an Irish whiskey highball.
Holly Mattson, a cocktail expert for kombucha brand Flying Embers, finds smashes, mules and bucks are the simplest cocktails to add kombucha into, since their sugars and citrus help highlight kombucha’s nuanced flavors.
That said, Zitti isn’t against swapping kombucha into just about any classic cocktail. “Every classic cocktail already has so many variants,” he says. “Look at the acidity and natural carbonation of kombucha, and use it to modify your favorite classic.”
Take a Tom Collins, for example. Zitti uses the standard ingredients of citrus, sugar and gin, but instead of topping the drink with soda water, he uses kombucha that’s carbonated and flavored with strawberries and lemongrass. “The final drink will be Collins-esque but very interesting and incredibly unusual,” he says. The strawberry-lemongrass kombucha can play double duty: You can also reduce the liquid and make a syrup or use it as a base for a shrub. “Or if you forget it in the fridge, it will eventually become a vinegar. It makes a great vinaigrette,” he adds.
Ricardo Ruiz, the head bartender at San Antonio’s Pharm Table, seconds making a Collins with kombucha. “I also love to see kombucha cocktails treated like fizzes, where the kombucha is used with a foaming agent like egg white or aquafaba.”
When working with the ingredient, Ruiz recommends looking to acidity and sweetness to balance kombucha’s tartness. He finds clear spirits work best with kombucha. “I’ve used gin in the past with a hibiscus-flavored kombucha,” he says. “They complemented each other very well. Anything fruity or berry-forward is perfect for matching the acidity of the kombucha.”
Ruiz largely avoids dark spirits with kombucha, at least at this point. “The barrel-aged flavors of whiskey and darker sugar cane spirits make for an off-putting combination with most kombucha ingredients,” he says. He notes this is largely because of the kombucha flavors available commercially. That’s beginning to change, however, opening the door to dark-spirit use. “I’m starting to see more chai and cinnamon and more warming spices work their way into the kombucha market,” he says. “Those are far more approachable when paired with whiskey.”
A World of Flavors
“We make kombucha out of virtually everything we come into contact with,” says Lars Williams, the founder of Empirical Spirits in Copenhagen. “Kombucha is such a great vehicle for flavor exploration, so it’s one of the techniques we apply to any and all materials that come into our distillery. We then decide whether that product works best as a kombucha, aqueous or alcoholic maceration, or something else.”
Currently, the distiller is producing marigold flower, young pine cone, fig leaf and quince tea kombuchas. These experiments are vacuum-distilled and used to lower the ABV of spirits before bottling or used to add fizz to the brand’s ready-to-drink cocktails.
Zitti goes full force into kombucha at Mother, growing his own scoby (“It takes up to 13 weeks!”) and making it into a house kombucha. Fermenting it himself helps keep costs low and allows him full autonomy over the flavors he creates. He’s currently making a pear and herbs de Provence one, plus a more tropical pineapple iteration.
Williams also experiments with a range of flavors. “We tend to use ‘strange’ botanicals for kombucha rather than the traditional tea,” he says. “We’ve found that kombucha is such a great agent for the expression of unusual flavors.” While tea is the standard base for a kombucha, “Anything with sugar can be used to make kombucha,” he says. He names carrot and apple juices as excellent bases for ferments but encourages fermentors to get creative. “As long as it tastes great, then everything else is and should be fair game.”
Zitti has a similar mentality. Experimentation is the best way to determine what flavors work for you. That said, he always flavors his ferments with fresh fruit, pulp or juice, then adds accents with spices and flavors.
“The bad side of kombucha? It lives on a strict time frame,” says Zitti. “It will eventually transform to vinegar if not used promptly.” His best solution is simply drinking it in a timely manner or, since it’s low-cost if made on-premises, offering complimentary glasses to bar guests. “Alternatively, make a syrup out of it or pickle your favorite vegetable with it,” he says.
Another major issue is inconsistency, since kombucha batches can vary wildly. To achieve a greater degree of consistency, Williams blends batches together. “Even though our kombucha is slightly different from one batch to the other, we can adjust our final blend to make sure we’re the closest possible to the ideal flavor profile we’re aiming for.”
Ruiz avoids inconsistent cocktails by educating his staff. “If the staff can speak about the flavors you offer, then there shouldn’t be a problem with having different variations of flavors,” he says. “Like anywhere, education is everything.”
Making Your Own Kombucha
While Ruiz looks local for his kombucha—“Element out of San Antonio and K-Tonic in Austin make excellent low-sugar options,” he says—committing to making your own kombucha is not as intimidating as it seems. It’s basic fermentation, calling for just water, fruit, sugar and a starter culture. “We make everything from scratch, across the board, with actual ingredients,” says Williams. “The scoby we use is one I was given 11 years ago by a hippie, long before there were online networks of enthusiasts.”
Kombucha’s variations are part of the excitement of fermentation. The ingredients are “living,” rendering perfect consistency impossible. Its flavors and aromas will change slightly, or sometimes dramatically, every single day of the process. “I can’t overemphasize the importance of constantly tasting,” says Williams. “That is perhaps the most important thing that a fermentor can do.” He also underscores cleanliness. Zitti seconds this, adding that bottles have exploded on him in the past if not kept clean.
Once you have the basics down, “Kombucha is a wonderful collaboration with a living organism,” says Williams. “It is flexible and can be taught over a few generations to digest most sugars. Explore that aspect: fruit and vegetable juices, malted grains, juiced corn stalks. I even pushed one scoby to digest lactose for a culinary application. Anything is possible.”
But be smart about your fermentation. “If something smells/tastes like death, please don’t drink it,” says Williams. “Start over and try again.”