Tea has come a long way since being steeped in your grandmother’s kitchen. Increasingly, tea leaves are being used in cooking and baking; afternoon tea service is becoming a hospitality staple, and now the second most consumed beverage in the world is making its way into countless types of libations.
“Drinking tea in itself is already an art form of its own due to the countless varieties available. I feel that adding tea to a cocktail definitely elevates it and makes it more unique because there are certain flavor profiles and aromas that you simply cannot achieve with any other ingredient,” says Shawn Chen, beverage director at New York, New York’s RedFarm and Decoy.
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A variety of classic tea flavors to play with in your cocktails.
However, it is more than just tea’s easy drinking nature and mass appeal that has brought it to the cocktail market. Mixologists, bartenders, and beverage directors cite the increased demand from consumers for new flavor infusions, drinks with texture, and creative flair.
It seems, too, that traditional tea flavors seem to pop up in cocktails the most. Chen says that when it comes to tea flavors, green teas, black teas, and some floral teas are all very popular in the cocktail realm. Scott Kollig, beverage manager of Baltimore, Maryland’s Rye Street Tavern, notes that another well-known type of tea—a quintessentially British tea—is making its mark on the cocktail scene.
“Earl Grey is certainly in vogue. It’s a recognizable flavor but is a bit of a novelty with boozy drinks, so it is a fun way to be surprising for the guest. The main flavoring for the tea, a unique citrus called bergamot, offers such an alluring aromatic punch in the face that can’t be beat.”
But Aidan Kassel, the head bartender at Westlight in Brooklyn, noted that he is seeing more unique teas hitting cocktail menus as well—including his own.
“I’m a huge mate fan. Anything from sparkling yerba mate for an afternoon pickup to Club Mate spiked with tequila at a Berliner style bar. Also, matcha has been gaining a lot of ground recently. Its health benefits, bright green color, and popularity in coffee shops as a lower caffeine alternative make it a huge contender in the popularity contest,” he says.
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When you're ready to branch out, try these 28 different flavored teas (like Peach Brulee, Honey Yuzu, and Blueberry Merlot) for even more inventive cocktail infusions.
Chen says that when it comes to pairing tea and spirits, he does play favorites—although he admits that tea does have the ability to mix with a number of alcohols.
“I love paring tea and whiskies for their herbaceous quality. Tea and gin or bourbon also make a great pair. Honestly, tea can be paired with all type of spirits, because it is such a versatile ingredient with endless possibilities when it comes to cocktail creations,” he says.
Kollig, though, prefers gin when it comes to creating a tea-based cocktail for its aromatic synergy. For best results, he says to mix the spirit with a jasmine or Earl Grey variety.
“The two together create such a complex and intriguing profile that most drinkers will be unfamiliar with. Black teas such as Assam or Darjeeling are tremendous with whiskey, and pretty much a no-brainer. A step further would be Scotch, peated or not, with lapsang [souchong]. The leaves are smoke-dried over pinewood fires and the flavors play together as good, if not, better than anything else on the playground,” notes Kolling.
If one is making a tea cocktail at home for fun, or to replicate a cocktail from the bar scene, Pamela Wiznitzer, a mixologist and beverage consultant, says to start by picking your favorite spirit and a tea you feel complements its flavor profile.
“Vodka lends itself nicely to almost all teas because you can infuse it easily or it pairs well in a drink to the flavors. Black teas play nicely with aged spirits, specifically Scotches and bourbons; green tea is delightful with Irish whiskey; and try out a rooibos with some Cognac or aged rum,” she says.
And if you want to take home brewing further than just mixing up a cocktail, try infusing your spirit of choice with tea for a ready-made drink. Kassel explains that while infusing your favorite bottle of booze with tea leaves may be intimidating, there is a tried-and-true method that will ensure it comes out top-notch.
“I treat tea infusions just like I would make sun tea at home. Take a tea bag for every cup of spirit, let it sit on your windowsill for about an hour, and taste until you think it’s imparted enough flavor. I’m always a fan of tasting along the way to make sure you don’t over-brew.”
And Chen agrees, over-brewing is the one thing that will make or break the drink. “Make sure not to over-steep the tea because it can bring out the bitterness in some cases,” he said.
Adds Wiznitzer, “If you are infusing a spirit with tea, use one tea bag for every eight ounces of spirit. The steep time depends on the type of tea being used. You should try to infuse a spirit anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, and keep an eye on the intensity of the infusion.”
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