Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy walks into a bar and orders two kombucha cocktails and one vegetable juice mojito. It might sound like something out of a Christopher Guest movie, but bars around the country have started incorporating ingredients that used to be the exclusive domain of health food stores. Matcha milk punch, anyone?
Whether this trend has been driven by consumer demand, better marketing, or bartenders’ exploration of new ingredients, we will probably never know. Either way, ingredients like matcha, kombucha and vegetable juice can bring fresh, unexpected flavors to the bar—not to mention a few health perks, a trend we’re starting to see more and more behind the bar. We spoke with a few bartenders exploring this new territory for their perspectives on creating healthier cocktails that don’t taste, well, healthy.
According to historians, drinking green tea is a practice that is approximately 4,000 years old. Studies suggest that green tea has many positive implications for health: it’s been linked to lowering cholesterol, and its antioxidant content may even help prevent cancer. It’s also claimed to improve brain function, burn fat, and purportedly increase longevity.
But in cocktails, its delicate flavor can be difficult to showcase, says Kenta Goto, owner of Bar GOTO. “From my experience, green tea flavor can be easily overwhelmed with sour flavors like lemon and lime. Botanicals in gin or agave in tequila [can also] prevent the green tea flavor from coming out.”
Matcha specifically is a stone-ground green tea powder that’s mixed into water and fully consumed. It’s the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony, and can be mixed fairly easily into hot or cold liquids. At Bar GOTO, the Matcha Milk Punch brings together vodka, cream, sencha, and matcha. “The concept is bringing together the tea ceremonies and the classic cocktail Milk Punch,” says Goto. “I kept the drink pretty simple in order to get the fullness of the green tea.”
Over the past five years, the fermented tea drink called kombucha has steadily gained popularity in the U.S. After the tea is fermented using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (known as a scoby), it may have health benefits similar to what you find from Greek yogurt or kefir, says Big Easy Bucha owner Austin Sherman.
“It has healthy, beneficial bacteria and healing acids similar to what’s in apple cider vinegar,” he says, and “there are some unofficial reports that kombucha helps with hangovers.”
Behind the bar, it can be a “healthy, lower sugar alternative to ginger beer or sodas that might give you flavor and mix well, but that have a lot of sugar,” says Sherman. In addition to sodas, its “light effervescence” and sweet-and-sour tanginess makes it a potential replacement for sugar-heavy shrubs.
“There’s a small educational aspect because it is a new category,” says Sherman. “Other than it being a necessity to keep it refrigerated, there aren’t many drawbacks.”
If you’re a lean green juicing machine, you’ve probably noticed some of your staple veggies showing up on cocktail menus. We’re not talking about V8 Bloody Marys – we’re talking about vegetables juiced fresh in-house to liven up your drink.
Juicing can help to increase your daily intake of vegetables (though you also don’t get as much – if any – of the fiber), and studies have even suggested that beet juice might improve athletic endurance. There’s little doubt that vegetable juice has benefits—but beyond the health advantages, many bartenders are using veggies to incorporate new flavors while meeting customers’ demands for healthier drinks. For Melissa James, lead bartender at Odd Duck, it’s also part of a larger commitment to eating local.
“We want to use ingredients that are in season and are fresh in our cocktails,” says James. “We work with farmers that are mostly in Austin. Everything we use was in the ground literally a couple days ago.”
One of the biggest challenges in using fresh vegetables is keeping it consistent. “We’re trying to make large batches of whatever’s seasonal,” says James. “Some of the juices have solids that we have to emulsify to keep the juice consistent.”
Though a recent study showed that drinking one or two drinks a day could lower the drinker’s risk for heart disease, some places are choosing to cut out the booze entirely. One such bar opened recently in London. Called Redemption Bar, the restaurant focuses on drinks that hydrate and give a “nutrient boost whilst avoiding alcohol and sugar,” says Catherine Salway, CEO and founder of Redemption Bar.
Some of their staple ingredients include coconut water and fresh juices. Coconut water, a potassium-rich and flavorful beverage that’s also purported to cure hangovers, is the base for their coco-tinis and coco-rita, while blood sugar friendly vegetable juice stars in a couple of their other drinks.
As many bartenders know, making a balanced drink without using booze can be challenging. “Making it not too sweet and getting the equivalent of the tannins you get with wine is an ongoing challenge,” says Salway. “We are still experimenting, but drinks like our Coco-rita really do taste authentic.”