Culture Club: Fermenting drinks

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

26 May 2017

The technique of fermenting ingredients has been around for centuries – and now it’s making its way into the bartenders’ repertoire. Alice Whitehead takes a look at the world of kefir, kimchi and kombucha

Drinkers are not just looking for culture at the bar, they also expect it in their glass. That’s why fermented ingredients such as kombucha, kefir and kimchi are increasingly bringing a new effervescence to classic cocktails.

Provoking a savoury and sour fizz where once there was sweetness, these drinks are proving incredibly popular, especially for those looking to swap saccharine mixers for grown-up flavours. What’s more, many of the ferments can be homemade, leaving you with more margin in the muddle.

Kombucha lends itself brilliantly to cocktails. It offers a drier, more sour flavour and acidity

Adam Vanni

‘Fermentation allows you to take some-thing originally intended for single use, such as an apple, and use the core or skin to access a whole different range of flavours,’ says Trash Tiki co-founder Iain Griffiths, who, alongside Kelsey Ramage, has made a name creating cocktails from by-products and waste. ‘And while the method has been around for centuries, people are still a bit surprised by it.’

Bubbling up
At his Selfridges rooftop pop-up wastED, Griffiths has been experimenting with a house kombucha in a Green Weber Fizz, using Patron Silver and cucumber seeds. The kombucha is made by fermenting tea, in this case oolong, with sugar, and adding a live kombucha culture or ‘scoby’.

‘Kombucha lends itself brilliantly to cocktails,’ says Adam Vanni, founder of Jarr Kombucha, and head kombucha brewer at Jarr Bar in Hackney Wick. ‘It offers a drier, more sour flavour and acidity. And because the wild bacteria and yeast give different fruity or floral flavours, it can also become unique to your city or bar.’

Originally from California, where kombucha is available on draft, Vanni has seen the trend rocket here and has been working alongside big names such as Alex Kratena, Matt Whiley and Davide Segat to create gin, tequila and rum cocktails with his Jarr Ginger and Jarr Original blends. ‘The market for kombucha is predicted to rise to £1.8 billion by 2020,’ he says.

Gut feeling
Over at Paley’s Place in Portland, Oregon, fellow American, Jon Lawson, has been exploring kefir – a culture added to milk or water to create a tart drink somewhere between milk and yoghurt.

In his Napitok Bagov, Lawson mingles kefir with Bombay Sapphire gin, cassis liqueur, honey syrup, lime, lemon, egg white and a dash of Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters. ‘It’s a drier, more fruit-forward version of a Gin Fizz with great acidity and silky mouthfeel,’ says Lawson. ‘I love the texture and flavours it brings – and although we charge a premium for it, it sells incredibly well.’

Five-a-day ferments

Two to try
Kristian Breivik at Jinjuu soaks cabbage in Korean chilli paste
and lets it sit for two to three weeks before using the juices.

Pineapple Tepache
Pop a whole chopped pineapple into a container with water, a cinnamon stick, cloves, yeast and sugar and steep for three to five days. See the full recipe at

At Korean-American chef Judy Joo’s restaurant Jinjuu, in London, group beverage manager Kristian Breivik has been pushing the boundaries even further by using makgeolli, a fermented unfiltered rice wine as a substitute for club soda in a Collins. He’s also been experimenting with the juices from Korean fermented vegetable side dish kimchi with a celery and black pepper-infused soju base spirit and gochugaru in his Spiced Kimchi Mary.

‘Drink trends tend to follow food and I don’t think it will be long before we see a kimchi-flavoured liqueur or spirit on the market,’ he says. ‘You cannot get the characteristic flavour profile of kimchi from any other ingredients, and while some people can be put off initially, once they try it
the feedback is fantastic.’

Kratena agrees. Having used kefirs, chichas, kombucha, fermented cacao pulp and masato (a drink made from chewed, fermented yucca root) in his cocktails, he warns that many ancient fermentations can be too challenging for European palates when used on their own.

‘Add small quantities into cocktails, however, and they make the most amazing and complex drinks,’ he says.

Back at Griffiths’ pop-up, fermented fruit pulp has also become part of his signature Pineapple Tepache – the result of a five-day ferment that starts at the venue prior to the event and is then ‘arrested’ with rum or tequila.

‘Lobbing fruit into water and allowing a yeast or vinegar to react with it drastically changes the results. The variables on this one fruit then become five-fold and the type of yeast, the sugar, the length of time, the temperature and the environment all become factors that you can adjust depending on what result you want, he says. ‘It’s changing the way we think about ingredients. It’s no longer, “I want this drink to taste like this,” but, “what the hell are we going to do with that?” And that’s where the real challenge and fun comes in!’

Fermentation Explanation
Four do’s and don’ts for the wannabe explorer

1 Have fun. Use wild fruits, bread yeast, vegetable skins and coffee grounds to
get wildly different results.

2 Don’t overdo it. Fermented ingredients can be very pungent and need to be surrounded by complementary ingredients to highlight the appetising flavours
and not the off-putting ones.

3 Be careful. Any homemade ferment carries the risk that you’ll grow undesirable
bacteria alongside your desirable ones, so control the environment, take
expert advice or buy ready-made.

4 For mothers or bases try or For ready-made kimchi try or For kombucha try, or

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