As with hot and cold beverages—tea cocktails are as refreshing in summer as they are soothing in winter.
Drinking tea is steeped—pardon the pun—in ritual. Whether it’s a late-afternoon pot of loose-leaf Ceylon and a tiered platter of ginger-studded scones served in an ornate hotel lobby, or a simple sachet of rooibos offering postprandial herbal relief from a multi-course dinner, there is something decidedly ceremonial about savoring a cup. For many bartenders the comforting, kettle-spawned beverage is just another compelling way to amplify cocktails.
Consider the ascent of the Owl’s Brew, a line of fresh-brewed and bottled tea blends designed to meld with cocktails. Along with creations like the English Breakfast-meets-lime Classic, there is the Famous Mint Tea, a lemon-tinged peppermint intended to pair specifically with the Famous Grouse Scotch. At Eat Street Social in Minneapolis, for instance, Marco Zappia makes the Northern Star, uniting the whisky and tea with ginger syrup, fresh lemon juice, and Bittercube Jamaican #1 Bitters.
That barkeeps are experimenting with boozy tea tipples is not surprising. In the doldrums of winter nothing hits the spot quite like a hot toddy, and integrating tea into such cold-weather concoctions adds both warmth and flavor. Andrew Lakin, beverage director at the Gander in New York City, for example, makes the Long Sleeved Tea, in which an orange hibiscus brew brings depth to Calvados, sweet vermouth, all-spice dram, and lemon. Likewise, the Honeysuckle Hottie relished at Borgne—first introduced as a Christmas special—is now a seasonal staple at the restaurant featuring Dammann Frères chamomile tea and Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka.
Maureen Donegan, bar director of Presidio Social Club in San Francisco, was developing a slew of coffee cocktails for the restaurant when she decided to throw in a hot tea drink for the non-java lovers to boot. The result was the Drunken Earl, a rescue for drab weather starring Wild Turkey rye, Drambuie, and Earl Grey. “Earl Grey is floral and works extremely well with cream and spices,” she says. “Tea is much more food-friendly; a caress where coffee is a hit to the palate.”
Although tea cocktails are natural fits for fall and winter, they need not be relegated to cool temperatures. As Donegan points out, tea is versatile and yields myriad flavor profiles when paired with different ingredients. “The combinations are endless. The opportunity to use an herbal tea with, say, an herbal liquor, is a big advantage to a non-caffeine drinker,” she adds.
When sultrier weather arrives, guests at Willa Jean in New Orleans can quench their thirst with the Dirty Water, a cooling mélange of spicy Bulleit bourbon countered with mint, lemon, and green tea. Bulleit is also the bourbon of choice for the Mag Mile at Bar Toma in Chicago, a large-format cocktail with peach liqueur, iced tea, and lemon, served in a punch bowl. “While we think sipping on the Mag Mile during patio season in Chicago is the best time to enjoy it, tea is a great beverage year-round: refreshing in the summer and soothing in the winter,” says Giuseppe Incandela, Bar Toma’s general manager.
Infusing a spirit with a jolt of tea is yet another successful way of using the beverage in a cocktail. Kasia Krupinska, head bartender at the Third Man in New York City, does so by deepening Dolin blanc vermouth with chamomile before combining it with St. George Terroir gin, lemon, and honey syrup to create the Pillow Talk. For the Myrtle Grey she opts to infuse Fords Gin with Earl Grey and rounds it out with myrtleberry liqueur, lemon, blackberry honey, and ginger.
Easy-to-make tea syrups also add flavorful intensity to cocktails. The Shepherd—at Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, Virginia—is garnished with an oregano sprig, and heightened by the presence of a syrup crafted from Greek mountain tea. Spun from the dried leaves and flowers of ironwort, the tea syrup extends the drink’s savory gin and grilled lemon notes.
At GreenRiver in Chicago, head bartender Julia Momose makes the bracing Mr. Dooley with George Dickel rye, Amaro Montenegro, fresh lemon, Dead Rabbit Orinoco Bitters, chocolate, and egg white. Weaving it all together is her from-scratch syrup infused with Lapsang souchong. “The inspiration for the cocktail came from both the Whiskey Sour and George Dickel rye, a Tennessee whiskey that is smooth, with notes of vanilla and spice,” recalls Momose. “I love the way that egg whites soften and suspend flavors in the glass. I wanted to introduce Lapsang souchong, a beautiful, smoky tea, to add another layer. There is a hint of bitterness that comes through from the natural tannins of the tea as well.”
Momose notes that the Mr. Dooley intrigues her guests because of the Lapsang souchong element. “Some are excited because they recognize it and see something familiar used in a new and creative way. Others are curious and want to know more,” she says. Momose says that while “brewing tea and adding sugar to make a syrup” is one clever way of playing with a beverage, there are other creative ways to employ tea. “Keeping in mind that water is a considerable component of a drink, I like to use tea to flavor the water. We also serve a highball made with cassis liqueur and topped with an oolong tea soda made in-house. Another drink incorporates Earl Grey as a tincture, sprayed over the top for its beautiful bergamot aromas,” she explains.
Tea might forever be synonymous with floral teacups and 4 p.m. finger sandwiches, but this traditional paradigm can also skew modern. At Virgin Hotels Chicago, the afternoon tea menu also includes a roster of cocktails made with the beverage. The warm Tea & Biscuits flaunting Hennessy, strawberry jam, and Rare Tea Cellars’ first-flush Darjeeling, for instance, “is inspired by hot buttered rum, but combined with the idea of something your English grandmother would make: black tea jollied up with clotted cream on top,” says bar manager Jon Harris. By contrast the Old Forester bourbon-based Health Tonic, starring uplifting lemon, Steen’s cane syrup, and a genmaicha soda that is carbonated in-house, was meant to “feel cleansing,” Harris says. “The genmaicha is green tea mixed with roasted rice, so you get vegetal flavors with a little nuttiness.” The tannins found in tea, he believes, are boons to helping boost a cocktail’s texture and astringency. “In general, tea can add a third or fourth flavor dimension where something like water would fall flat. It all depends on the tea. We’re using one right now called Freak of Nature Oolong, which tastes like a mixture of buttered popcorn, shortbread, and forest floor,” he adds.
Just as wholesome-sounding as the Health Tonic is the Chaturanga Fizz, the yoga pose–inspired cocktail made by Laura Bellucci of SoBou in New Orleans. Crowning this libation made with cachaça, lemon, cucumber, honey, and celery bitters is the restaurant’s own carbonated jasmine tea. “The jasmine brings a floral, slightly tannic, and exotic element to the drink, and a plethora of flavor without any calories,” she says. “I’m actually working on a new cocktail with green tea–infused gin this week.” Whether she’s embracing Lapsang souchang in the winter or hibiscus to brighten vodka during the summer, Bellucci loves investigating the interplay between tea and alcohol year-round. “There are so many different flavors,” she says. ”It’s like working with spice mixes.”