Ostensibly, liquor and tea are on opposite ends of the libation spectrum. It’s hard to envision a bar fight erupting after one too many chamomiles, nor would we think to pair whiskey and crumpets.
Notwithstanding reductive caricatures, could it be that tea and spirits aren’t that dissimilar?
“Tea has just as much complexity as a fine Scotch,” insists David Duckler, founder of Verdant Tea in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood.
Then perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that incorporating tea — the choice beverage of old Chinese men and British women with elaborate hats — is an easy and effective way to boost a cocktail.
“I love working with tea,” said Jesse Held, chief cocktailer at Parlour, Coup d’état and Marche. “Tea has such a complexity where you don’t need a lot of different ingredients to achieve a pretty cool cocktail.”
The cocktail czar’s various drink menus include a few tea-infused tipples, from an Earl Grey tequila Old-Fashioned to gin and vodka sour riffs leveraging rooibos and green tea, respectively. While most infusions take six to 10 days, Held said tea-steeped hooch is usually “good to go” in under an hour. Clear spirits such as vodka and gin tend to absorb outside flavors better than the brown stuff, with the gin-and-tea coupling being particularly popular.
“A lot of the subtleties of tea play well off of specifically gin, because gin has a lot of the same characteristics as the tea,” Held said. “Yeah, it’s juniper-forward, but there’s also lemon peels, coriander and cubeb berries — all these little intricate subtle flavors in gin as well.”
It’s far from a sophisticated “mixology” joint (no litany of apothecary bottles here), but the Aster Cafe has long dabbled with tea infusions. The St. Anthony Main restaurant’s general manager, Michelle Coy, said patrons often inquire about the concoctions, which sit in large glass decanters behind the bar.
“It’s very approachable. We don’t have an ice program,” Coy said wryly. “We’re not that kind of a bar. It gives us something unique, and they’re popular.”
Infusions aren’t the only way to get tea into cocktails, as Held suggests making tea syrups by blending equal parts hot tea and sugar. Erik Eastman, the “Easy” half of DIY bitters kit-makers Easy & Oskey, has toyed with making tea bitters — including a recent experiment with a rooibos-kaffir lime combo, though he’s yet to find a stellar use for them.
Eastman’s favorite (and perhaps the most natural) tea-tail trick is substituting tea for hot water in a belly-warming hot toddy. “It provides depth without clobbering your palate with crazy amounts of flavor,” he said.
Verdant recently debuted a handful of tea toddies on its fall menu. This summer Duckler’s chai house added a kitchen and a liquor license, and the tea importer-turned-restaurateur tapped his childhood bestie Simeon Rossi of Northfield distillery Loon Liquors to help devise a tea-leaning cocktail list. Given the oolong expert’s tea background and leafy arsenal, his Seward cafe’s cocktail list is hardly limited to de rigueur (if perfectly delicious) Earl Grey infusions.
Duckler believes pu’er (sometimes called pu-erh) teas have the most promising cocktail applications. Like whiskey or certain wines, pu’ers — which have a dense, woodsy aroma and gradually enveloping nutty taste — improve as they age. “They start out really wild and untamed and they get smoother, deeper and richer over time,” Duckler said.
Verdant’s online store offers vintages up to 10 years old, the same age as some single-malt Scotches. Fittingly, Duckler says the two are natural bedfellows and that an overnight infusion can make a $40 bottle taste “like an $85 bottle.” Meanwhile, his menu features a 13-year-old pu’er tincture in lieu of bitters in a Scotch Old-Fashioned. From the sound of it, we weren’t the first to point out that Scotch aficionados would deem either practice punishable by drubbing (or at least a snooty lecturing).
“Oh, I know. I’m used to that,” Duckler replied. “On the other side, there are tea people who would call it blasphemy to use the tea in that way, so I’m a blasphemer on both sides.”
Sometimes it tastes good to be bad.
Michael Rietmulder writes about cocktails, beer and nightlife.