I could claim to have grown up with tea, but it’s more truthful to say that, thanks to my dad’s job in the Foreign Service, I grew up around it without ever managing to pick up the habit.
America is still catching up on tea, although, like the metric system, tea is a big deal almost everywhere else. In Karachi, Pakistan, where I was born, it’s masala chai, a black tea enhanced with cinnamon and cardamom. Taiwan, where my sister came along, produces delicate, complex oolongs. In Australia, our last overseas post, tea was a common quaff, but I was too busy sneaking out to drink beer.
It wasn’t until college, when I spent a year in the U.K. — where a cuppa is offered as a soothing remedy for everything including a stressful commute and a death in the family — that I drank tea at all. Even then, the main attraction was its chubby wingman: a scone smeared with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
Through cocktails, I’ve come to be an appreciator of tea. It falls right under bitters on my list of ways to add flavor without adding much alcohol or sugar. And it doesn’t always mean adding caffeine; although many true teas contain it, lots of green teas have a low caffeine content, and some of the herbal teas and fruit infusions have none at all.
(A point of definition: Although some blends travel under the “tea” name, unless they contain leaves of Camellia sinensis, they’re not technically real tea. I’m using the term “tea” slightly unscientifically here, to refer to botanical blends that you brew with hot water and aren’t coffee.)
I like how preparing teas is both similar to and different from making cocktails. Like a good drink, a good cup of tea requires precision. The proper extraction of flavors in tea is a matter of careful measurement of time and temperatures. Over-steep a finicky leaf and you can wind up with a cup of bitter, aggressively vegetal unpleasantness, barely recognizable.
But unlike cocktails, tea is made via a process that’s inherently slothy, especially when you’re chilling it afterward. As a home cocktailer, I’m not serving a bar three deep with howling patrons. But I am always trying to make drinks faster, and speed is something you cannot apply to teas: They take the time they take, and in the case of some herbal teas and infusions, the steeping may stretch beyond 10 minutes.
Yet isn’t that a lovely thing in itself? We live such busy lives, and this small pause that tea creates provides an opportunity to do yoga poses, practice mindfulness or stare frantically at your cellphone while sending mental admonitions to the tea to just steep already, you no-good lazy leaves.
I’m always ashamed of my impatience when I spend time around Chantal Tseng, who either radiates calm graciousness from the core of her being or has, over many years of dealing with tipsy people, become very good at faking it. As a bartender at the Reading Room in Washington, D.C., Tseng has been running a weekly series of cocktail events featuring drinks inspired by various authors. Many of them involve tea, and you can serve them cold or hot.
“Tea is something I drink every single day,” Tseng says, noting that she probably first started playing with teas when working with old punch recipes and making batch cocktails for large events. (Another benefit of tea: Along with not adding alcohol or sugar, it also doesn’t add a huge amount of expense.)
She thinks of it almost like cooking: You have your base spirits, “and you can kind of imagine those flavors . . . your garlic, your celery and then you add spices” via teas and other modifiers, she says.
Black teas are generally great with darker spirits such as aged rums, bourbon and rye, Tseng says. Pu-erh “always reminds me of camping. The first time I tasted it, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. It tastes like earth, but like warm earth.’” She finds that green tea and herbal teas such as chamomile often work well with gin; chamomile, she points out, is a common flavoring in vermouth.
Her e.e. cummings-inspired drink, I Love Humanity, is a seasonal flavor bridge incorporating bourbon, apple brandy and spice with roasted barley tea and lemon. The barley tea is a grain infusion that tastes like toast smells: roasty, bready, comforting at any temperature. The drink of her specifications is deliciously boozy; if you want something a little lighter and more tea-forward, increasing the amount of barley brew does no harm.
Slipstream, the coffee-to-cocktails nook in D.C., almost always has a tea cocktail on the menu, says bar manager Chris Jakubowski. He likes how jasmine teas pair with tequila and mezcal: “The strong earthiness of agave spirits kind of grounds the Bath & Body Works aspect of jasmine tea.” In his High Tea cocktail, soft floral notes in the oolong tea balance out the richness of apple brandy.
Maybe it’s odd that my primary sense memory of tea is from my parents’ roots in the Deep South, where you can’t throw a grit without hitting iced tea, most of it so sweet it’ll make your teeth itch. I remember spots where a request for unsweetened tea met with a dose of “clearly-a-Yankee” stink-eye from the waitress.
Those sweet teas were on my mind when I developed the accompanying Porchard recipe, adding other fruits of the South — specifically, bourbon and peaches. I was aiming for the kind of brew you’d want to set in a pitcher on the porch while you sip from it for hours, wearing light linen clothes and glistening in a Tennessee Williams sort of way that might bring gentleman callers to the yard, callers you’d then have to chase off lest they want to steal your pitcher of Porchard. It tastes like a Southern summer.
This Southern-inflected sipper will be best when you can use fresh, ripe peaches. But even unripe peaches with a good fragrance will work. The lemon juice brings brightness; omit it if you’re looking for a drink that more closely echoes a classic Southern sweet tea.
Make ahead: The bourbon needs to infuse for a day or two in advance; the infused bourbon can be refrigerated for up to a few weeks.
From columnist M. Carrie Allan.
3 cups chilled black tea
1 1/2 cups peach-infused bourbon (see notes below)
6 ounces fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons; optional)
6 to 12 ounces Demerara syrup (see notes below)
Mint sprigs, for garnish
Combine the tea, peach-infused bourbon and lemon juice, if using, in a large pitcher. Add 6 ounces of the Demerara syrup, then taste; add some or all of the remaining syrup as needed. Refrigerate until well chilled.
When ready to serve, fill 4 glasses with ice. Take sprigs of mint, slap each one between your palms (to release the herb’s oils) and add one sprig to each glass. Pour the drink over the ice to fill.
Notes: To make the peach-infused bourbon, place 12 ounces of peeled, sliced fresh peaches in a bowl and cover with 1 1/2 cups of bourbon. Allow to infuse for 24 to 48 hours, then strain, pressing on the peaches to release any remaining liquids. Discard the solids.
To make the Demerara syrup, combine 1 1/2 cups of Demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Cook for a few minutes, then turn off the heat. Cool completely before using or storing (for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator).
Per serving: 330 calories, 0 g protein, 28 g carb., 0 g fat, 0 g sat. fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 26 g sugar
Subtle, floral and lightly bittersweet, this drink incorporates chamomile tea with the sun-hued, gentian-based aperitif Suze.
From columnist M. Carrie Allan.
1 cup chilled chamomile tea
4 ounces Old Tom Gin
2 ounces Suze brand aperitif liqueur
2 ounces dry curaçao
4 twists of lemon peel, for garnish
Combine the tea, gin, Suze and curaçao in a pitcher, then stir.
Fill 4 highball glasses with ice and divide the drink among them. Express a piece of lemon peel over the surface of each drink, then drop the peel in; or roll the peels, skewer them with cocktail picks and rest one across the rim of each glass.
Per serving: 120 calories, 0 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
La Bergamote Juste
Gin and Earl Grey tea go beautifully together. The bergamot – bergamote in France – in the tea complements the botanicals of the gin in this crisp, refreshing drink.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
3 ounces chilled Earl Grey tea
1 1/2 ounces citrusy gin, such as Tanqueray 10 or Malfy
3/4 ounce honey syrup (see note below)
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 ounces tonic water
Twist of grapefruit or orange peel, for garnish
Fill a highball glass with ice. Add the chilled Earl Grey tea, gin, honey syrup and lemon juice, then stir. Top with the tonic water as needed.
Twist/express the citrus peel over the top of the drink, then drop it in.
Note To make the honey syrup, dissolve 1/4 cup of honey in 1/4 cup of boiling water, stirring until the honey has dissolved. Cool completely before using.
Per serving: 170 calories, 0 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar
This simple, delicious concoction highlights oolong tea. To make a crowd-size batch, multiply the ingredient amounts by the number of servings you want, mix in a pitcher and refrigerate until ready to serve, then pour over ice.
Make ahead: The rich simple syrup can be refrigerated indefinitely in an airtight container.
Adapted from Chris Jakubowski, bar manager at Slipstream in Washington.
2 ounces brewed, chilled oolong tea
1 1/2 ounces Laird’s Applejack
1/2 ounce chilled rich simple syrup (see note below)
2 dashes orange bitters
Fill a highball glass with ice. Combine the chilled tea, applejack, rich simple syrup and orange bitters in a mixing glass, stirring to incorporate. Pour into the highball glass.
Note: To make a rich simple syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a low boil, then cool. Transfer to a heatproof container. Once it has cooled to room temperature, cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through; store indefinitely.
Per serving: 140 calories, 0 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
I Love Humanity (Inspired by e.e. cummings)
This is from bartender Chantal Tseng’s weekly series of cocktail events at the Reading Room in D.C., featuring drinks inspired by various authors. The roastiness of the barley tea and the richness of apple brandy and bourbon bring depth to the drink.
Barley tea is caffeine-free. It is available in Asian markets and at some specialty tea shops. Allspice dram is an allspice-flavored liqueur. Maraschino liqueur is not the juice from maraschino cherries.
Adapted from Chantal Tseng, bartender at the Reading Room.
1 ounce brewed chilled barley tea (see note above)
3/4 ounce apple brandy (such as Copper & Kings or Laird’s)
3/4 ounce bourbon
1/4 ounce allspice dram (see headnote)
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
Whole nutmeg, for garnish
Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the barley tea, apple brandy, bourbon, allspice dram, maraschino liqueur and lemon juice; stir until well chilled. Strain and pour into a chilled rocks glass.
Use a Microplane zester to grate a little fresh nutmeg over the top.
Per serving: 190 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar