Jeffery Lindenmuth - June 2007
By shaking complex flavors with a shot of healthy thinking, bartenders are drenching our iced tea smitten nation with cocktails steeped in originality.
Around the middle of the 19th century, just as American bartenders were inventing fantastical spirited concoctions like cocktails and shrubs (made with a sweetened juice concentrate), juleps and cobblers, the ceremony of afternoon tea had become a fashionable institution in England. Although separated by the Atlantic, each imbibing ritual eventually made it across the pond, bringing "American drinks" to England and "tea dances" to grand American hotels. But as ships passing in the night, the two never really met. However, teatime and the cocktail hour have finally collided. Seizing upon tea's healthful benefits and exotic flavors, inventive bartenders are plunging the leaves of the Orient into their drinks.
Tea does have a history of flirtation with spirits. In Convivial Dickens: The Drinks of Dickens & His Times, Edward Hewett observes it was not uncommon for the English teapot to be "augmented with a damp of gin or brandy," but tea was also a staple of the temperance and teetotalism movements, which commandeered the beverage as a companion for cake and crustless sandwiches. In Drinks of the World, published in 1892, a few decades after Dickens' death, Charles Mew and John Ashton saluted tea, observing, "All the British colonies and possessions are devotees to the cup which cheers, but not inebriates." They were clearly oblivious to the longtime role of tea as a base for robustly alcoholic punches, such as notoriously pixilating Philadelphia Fish House punch, an amalgam of tea, rum, peach brandy, lemon juice, and sugar.
But tea only temporarily eluded the mixing glass. Today, a few new spirits like Zen Green Tea Liqueur from Suntory and Qi Tea Liqueur, made from Lapsang Souchong by Qi Spirits in San Francisco, are capitalizing on the ingredient. Following suit, some bartenders, intent on creating their own idiosyncratic flavors, go direct to the source.
Roger Kugler, sommelier and general manager at Suba restaurant in Manhattan, for example, came up with Almond and Lemon Fino Sangria, combining tea, pureed almonds, fino Sherry, and fresh lemon juice, served with a garnish of sliced apple. "As fino Sherry is a fairly strong taste, I needed a tea with some body to stand up to it, so I turned to a black tea. Earl Grey also benefits from name recognition and makes an excellent iced tea. I prefer to cold brew it to preserve and enhance the tannins rather than cooking them out," says Kugler, who describes the drink as a hybrid of summer lemonade, spiked iced tea, and a Sherry shandy. Kugler also pays unknowing tribute to some traditional punch recipes, which often called for brewed tea in combination with rum, brandy, or wine prior to Prohibition.
At Riingo in New York City, where the cocktail program includes house-infused vodka, gin, shochu, and sake, tea is just one more ingredient for the alchemic jars. General manager and beverage director Yuka Abe says, "The sake infusions with dried fruit can take a week to 10 days, but to create our T-Teani we begin by adding three tablespoons of Earl Grey tea leaves to a liter of Plymouth gin, and it's ready in an hour." After filtering, the infused gin is combined with an equal amount of fresh sour mix, shaken with ice, and served chilled in a sugar-rimmed glass. "Because of its similarity to iced tea, it's one of our most popular summer cocktails," says Abe.
Tim Lacey, bar manager and beverage director for Spring Restaurant Group in Chicago, agrees that steeping time for tea in spirits is best measured in minutes. For his Savannah Cooler Tea Cocktail he infuses one-third cup of loose black tea in vodka for 40 minutes, then mixes the strained spirit with Briottet Crème de Pêche de Vigne, lemon juice, and simple syrup and serves it on ice topped with soda water. When infusing green tea with jasmine in gin, he determined 18 minutes, not 15, is the perfect time. Lacey is also creating hot cocktails with tea, including flavors like pastis and orange liqueur. "Cocktail drinkers are more excited by alcoholic tea drinks. Tea drinkers don't want anything to get in the way," he reports.
Bong Su Restaurant and Lounge in San Francisco similarly infuses Bacardi Light Rum with Earl Grey tea to make the Earl Grey Boxcar, which also calls for Punt e Mes, pineapple juice, apricot brandy, lemon and lime juices, and Angostura bitters. Bong Su offers an extensive selection of exotic teas, but co-owner Anne Le says that, when infusing alcohol, she falls back on bergamot scented Earl Grey for its potency and ability to stand up in a cocktail. "I have long been aware of the many benefits of tea. The flavors are beautiful, and they match well with the cuisine. Tea has also been used historically as a cleanser. They would use it to wash dishes in ancient China. It contains antioxidants, and it is also aids in digestion," says Le.
While Le makes no health claims about the Earl Grey Boxcar, she may be on to something. A 2004 study conducted by The Department of Analytical Chemistry, Medical University of Bialystok, Poland, suggests that the combination of tea with alcohol may be as salubrious as it is satisfying. When black tea was served to intoxicated rats, the beneficial antioxidant effects were observed throughout the body, but especially upon the liver.
While hosting an event for the 2005 Smithsonian Folklife Festival at Zola restaurant in Washington, D.C., Ralph Rosenberg, director of operations for Star Restaurant Group, was inspired to consider the role of sustainable ingredients in his cocktail program. Using ingredients like Bee Raw varietal honey and Numi Organic Tea, he created several successful potions.
"I'm not a huge tea drinker, but these teas were unbelievable. I loved the tea and the company, and that was an inspiration to upgrade our coffee and tea service," says Rosenberg. "And I think it was Alice Waters who challenged me to use them in creating a cocktail."
Rosenberg actually created two tea cocktails, both served hot from individual glass teapots. This allows patrons to watch the blossoming effect of the hand-sewn tea leaves as they softly billow into life like sea anemones. For his Dragon Thunder, Rosenberg seasons a teacup by rinsing it with Cointreau, then fills it with Numi Dragon Lily blossoming tea laced with three-quarters ounce of Dew Drops, an oak-aged superpremium sake. "These teas are so delicate, I finally arrived at sake," he explains. "The final drink has these unbelievable orange, lavender, oak, and cucumber aromas."
Anna Hartman, public relations manager for Numi Organic Tea, says their foodservice managers are not actively targeting cocktail creators, but the synergy does not surprise her. "We're more often talking to the wine person or the chef, but I can see why tea is attractive to bartenders, especially those who use fresh ingredients, fresh mixers, and just want to differentiate themselves."
Manufacturers and marketers of healthful foods are aware that the LOHAS consumer (that's Lifestyle Of Health And Sustainability) embraces products like tea, pomegranate, and açai berries, but even these people want to have an alcoholic drink now and again. "It's about being able to party with your product," says Hartman. Observing their common organic thread, Square One Organic Vodka has also created a suite of cocktail recipes using Numi teas, which they market to bars and restaurants.
Sweet tea has a long tradition as a refreshing chilled beverage in the South, but the Tea-Tini at Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, invites questions from locals and Yankees alike. "We opened with a focus on classic cocktails, like Sidecars, but we also wanted to do something that represents us geographically, and sweet tea always appears at Southern tables," says Dennis Perry, sommelier. The drink is essentially a Stoli Ohranj Martini with a splash of sweet tea served in a sugar-rimmed glass garnished with lemon.
Josh DeChellis, chef/partner of Sumile Sushi in New York City, says, "You can't stop me from getting behind the bar." To create the Eric Mason 50/50 he parlayed his fondness for the Arnold Palmer (half iced tea, half lemonade) to concoct a drink better suited to the 19th hole, a long quaff that compiles house-made yuzu-ade, oolong tea, Olifant vodka, and Jim Beam Bourbon. "The combination of bitterness and acidity creates a flavor that I call racy, sharp, and arresting," says DeChellis, who selected oolong for its perfume and superb tannins.
With access to both The Tea Cellar, serving 54 exotic teas overseen by tea sommelier Ardina Kievits, and The Lounge at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C., assistant food and beverage manager Diana Earley devised a family of crossover cocktails that appeals to both constituencies. Not only infusing spirits with tea, she enlists the help of pastry chef Laurent Merdy to make flavored syrups with a capacity for more concentrated tea flavor. In Earley's hands, a syrup steeped from MITEA's Mint Meritage tea lends sweetness and minty flavor to a Tea Mojito. And, with cocktails using teas in flavors of cherry blossom and magnolia on deck for summer, Earley is sure that the new breed of tea lovers will be anything but teetotalers.