Go Green: Why You Should Be Using Matcha in Cocktails

A green cocktail garnished with a leaf.
Matcha adds complexity, subtle earthy flavors, health perks and a great hue to cocktails — just like the First Lady, served at The Garret in NYC. Photo by Cyndi Ramirez.

Bartender Thanny Bradford was flying home from Japan, drinking a ginger ale (as he always does) when, by chance, he started eating some matcha Pocky he'd smuggled onto the plane. The combination of flavors gave him a sudden flash of cocktail inspiration. “I was like, ‘Hey! This would work pretty well together,’” he says. “Then I [thought] Matcha Mule, that’s a clever little name.’”

When he got back to his bar, Seattle’s Forge Lounge, he added the Matcha Mule to the menu: the ingredients of a standard Moscow Mule with matcha suspended in the vodka. It’s now been on the menu for half a decade, and has become one of the bar’s signature drinks, with customers coming in specifically to order it, swearing each bartender makes it slightly differently.

Bradford’s cocktail is one of many matcha drinks showing up at bars across the country, as bartenders discover the versatility of the bitter, grassy green tea powder. It can be used in simple drinks like the Matcha Mule, or in elaborate concoctions like the First Lady at New York City’s The Garret — it’s a combination of gin, Combier, basil and egg. (Want to try? We’ve got the recipe here.) In LA, it’s even being used to complement the flavors of cannabis in a marijuana-based cocktail. It’s beloved by customers for its trend and health appeals, and by managers because it’s a cheap and long-lasting ingredient.

“Matcha became popular because people were ready for it,” Bradford says. “[Customers] were open to new flavors. It’s easy to work with — when you go to Japan you find it in everything. That’s why matcha Kit Kats are so good. It goes with everything.”

Even though matcha is a type of tea, you’ll probably be using it in powder form in your cocktails instead of as a liquid. Unlike brewed tea, matcha quickly separates in liquid, so it’s easier to incorporate into shaken drinks via a suspension like egg white or aquafaba or mixed into something like gomme syrup.

When it comes to pairing spirits with matcha, you’ve got options: bartenders have used everything from mezcal to shochu in their matcha cocktails. If you’re looking for something easy to build a matcha cocktail around, many bartenders recommend gin as an obvious complement to matcha’s bitter, herbal flavors. Jason Eisner, owner of Block Party in Los Angeles and beverage director at West Hollywood’s Gracias Madre recommends “neutral spirits that are high in residual sugar and have some kind of terroir attached to them,” he says. “I like using unaged agave spirits — tequila and certain varieties of mezcal.”

At Gracias Madre, Eisner has made a few drinks incorporating matcha, including one he calls a vegan boba tea: tequila, housemade coconut and almond milks, lime bitters and a matcha and sesame-infused agave syrup. But his most creative use of matcha is in the Sour T-iesel. The Sour T-iesel is a vegan, cannabis-y take on a tequila sour, made with cannabinoid CBD (since the stuff he’s using is extracted from hemp, it’s legal). It’s topped with aquafaba foam and a stenciled matcha pot leaf. Each sip gets a small amount of the matcha, adding an essential balance to the drink’s sweetness, he says.

“Matcha tea is a really interesting bittering agent. But it’s a bittering agent that hasn’t been overly processed by people,” Eisner says. “It works the same way that bitters work, but you can taste that earth where it came from. It has a sense of place.”

As consumers grow more enamored with amari, IPAs and negronis, matcha is an easy way to accommodate the the increasing popularity of bitter flavors. “When you start dealing with things on the bitter side, you can end up with things that are a bit more murky, a bit sweeter, richer and denser,” says Grant Wheeler, beverage director at New York City’s The Garret. “Matcha has none of those qualities, it can counteract those.” He points to their drink The First Lady: with just gin, triple sec and lemon, it would have been sweet and dense. But with the addition of basil and matcha, “The middle of that palate becomes herbal, kind of crisp and stimulating [in a way] that a simple citrus sugar balance can’t.”

That bitterness provides another function, he adds — it reminds customers of matcha’s health benefits (it’s higher in antioxidants than standard green tea.) “It’s extremely alkaline and grassy, and a lot of people have started to align their flavor preferences with healthy flavors,” he says. When customers at the Forge Lounge look askance at the drink’s muddy appearance, Bradford simply informs them that it’s healthy: “It looks like swamp water, but I just explain how it’s antioxidant-rich, how it cures your hangover as you consume it,” he says with a chuckle.

“Don’t be afraid to look at its natural application,” Bradford says. “The Japanese have had access to it a lot longer than we have.”

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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