FIVE! Drinks with Tea

Tea is not just the beverage of choice among teetotalers. Its also a product of complexity and flavor, making it an intriguing ingredient for any bartender. Here are FIVE! beverages equally suited for the tea room or the cocktail bar.

Friday night and they’re lined up 4-deep at the bar, standing and shouting orders to warm the cockles of any bartender’s heart.

A young couple has been waiting a while in the back corner now to grab the first table that empties out, preferring to order once they’ve sat down. They take their positions as one table calls for the bill, and before you know it they’ve slipped into their seats, even before the others have finished their last sips.

So far, so good. Space is a rare commodity tonight, and one can excuse such poor manners amidst the desperation. Just wipe down the table and take the order: “One verbena tea and one mint tea with milk and sugar, please”, ordered with a matter-of-factness that makes you wonder yourself what kind of shithole you’re working in that only offers black tea.

Tea is a fickle friend, with a dubious reputation at best in bars. But tea also has a world of flavors in store stretching from chrysanthemums to nuts, hay, honey, peach, resin, oysters, summer rain and the forest floor. Often tea can function similar to bitters in a cocktail, adding depth and creating balance.

The kick-off: A tea crash course in three sentences

Every tea is made from the same plant, which comes in a wide range of varieties like with grapes. In turn, the different types of tea are products of the different types of processing. For example, with Japanese green tea the leaves are plucked, steamed, rolled and dried, whereas with white tea the plucked leaves are left to wilt in the sun and then dried.

 1) The Japanese opening: Speak low

The Japanese tea ceremony is a fascinating thing. It involves grinding the tea leaves beforehand to a powder called matcha, mixing the powder with water and then drinking it. The tea has a strong umami taste, not altogether unlike chicken broth with hay.

And wouldn’t you know it, someone came along and made a cocktail out of it. At the peak of the Japanese bar culture hype, Japanese-American bartender Shingo Gokan won the 2012 Bacardi Legacy Competition with his simple combination of rum, PX sherry and matcha. His winning cocktail could hardly be more Japanese in character: First the ingredients are mixed in a tea bowl using a bamboo brush, followed by the legendary hard shake, then served up in a tumbler over a hand-cut ice cube and garnished with a yuzu zest.

5 cl of light, aged rum
1.5 cl of PX sherry
1/2 bar spoon of matcha powder

Glass: Tumbler

Garnish: Yuzu zest

Preparation: Mix all the ingredients in a shaker and shake vigorously in ice. Then strain into the glass over a large ice ball or cube.

That’s a lot of trouble for a drink you could actually just shake. Strain it twice over the large ice cube in the tumbler. The author favors a mandarin orange zest; it’s easier to get and it complements the drink better. But actually it doesn’t need a garnish at all, just like with the tea ceremony.

2) Cold Tea Punch a la Jerry Thomas

It’s actually kind of astonishing just how little attention is given to tea. In his book “How To Mix Drinks”, Jerry Thomas offers the following advice: “To make punch of any sort in perfection, using tea instead of water is the grand secret. And David Wondrich doubles down on the prospect, asserting that the caffeine in tea made Tea Punch the Vodka Bull of earlier times.

Tea plays a decisive role in the following recipe by reducing the amount of alcohol without diluting the taste.

300 ml of VS or VSOP cognac
300 ml of aged, light rum
100 g white sugar and a lemon zest worked into oleo saccharum
50 ml of lemon juice
700 ml of green tea (Long Jing)

This punch is made mostly of tea, so you need the real deal instead of just any old tea! The popular Long Jing variety works particularly well here. Its mild chestnut note creates a link between the rum and cognac. The less well-known Ding Gu Da Fang variety offers a slightly nuttier option.

For the infusion take 20 g of tea leaves, pour 700 ml of 80° C water over them and allow to brew for 4 minutes. It’s a pretty expensive prospect, but simple. And depending on their quality the leaves can be re-brewed up to five times, allowing you to use the same leaves in small batches.

The preparation itself is very easy: Mix the sugar and the lemon peel and let them stand for a few hours to draw the oils out of the zests. Add the warm tea, dissolve the sugar and then add the rest of the ingredients. Place in the fridge to cool or pour into bottles and serve with ice.

3) Herbal teas and Madeliefje

Of course, in addition to the numerous varieties of tea plant there are also many other herbs, fruits and leaves one can pour hot water over. This is no longer known as tea, but “tisane”. Now, please don’t take that nugget of info as an excuse to hold court on the correct nomenclature of hot beverages next time you order a rosehip “tea”. If that’s what you’re ordering, you’ve got bigger fish to fry anyway.

Be that as it may, rooibos is just such a plant. It’s prepared like a tea and has an earthy, fruity flavor. The drink creation below links the initial arrival of herbal tea in Europe to the Dutch seafarers of the 18th century. The full-bodied, earthy interplay between the rooibos and jenever is center-stage here, and is underscored even more by the pomegranate.

40 ml of Oude Jenever (Bols Genever)
30 ml of lemon juice
20 ml of pomegranate syrup
1 bar spoon of rooibos

Glass: Coupette

Garnish: Lime zest

Preparation: Let the rooibos soak in the jenever for 5 minutes and then strain. Shake all the ingredients vigorously with ice and strain into a pre-cooled glass.

To get the pomegranate syrup, either juice the seeds from a pomegranate in a juicer or use a blender and sieve to process them into juice. At low temperature, dissolve 50 g of brown sugar in 100 ml of this juice and add 3 drops of orange blossom water. Add a shot of vodka to preserve the whole thing.

This drink deliciously demonstrates how tea can be used in a bar without a great deal of preparation. Since alcohol rapidly absorbs flavors and tea naturally disperses its flavors quickly, in many cases you don’t need more than a couple of minutes to add another dimension to a spirit.

4) Reverend Palmer

Greater minds than most have already confronted the topic of tea, as evidenced by Don Lee in his PDT Cocktail Book with this drink featuring black tea-infused Straight Small Batch Bourbon. 2007 was a time when ingredients with eleven syllables fell easily from the lips of bartenders anyway. Lee recommends using a black tea from Sri Lanka.

But that’s not necessarily the most interesting choice. The “Reverend Palmer” is intended as a summer drink, and with the peach notes in the bourbon it makes sense to look around for a fruitier black tea. China offers great black tea choices from the Wu Liang Shan mountain range in Yunnan Province and Keemun tea from the Anhui Province.

50 ml of well-aged bourbon (Elijah Craig 12), infused with black tea
10 ml of lemon syrup
1 dash of Angostura bitters

Glass: Tumbler

Garnish: Lemon zest

Preparation: Mix the ingredients in a mixing glass, chill by stirring in ice cubes and strain into the glass over ice.

Lemon syrup: Add the zest from a whole lemon to 100 ml of 1:1 sugar syrup and let it stand for 15 minutes.
Black tea bourbon: Add 15 g of tea to a bottle of bourbon and let it stand for around 10 minutes.

5) Closing credits: Real Iced Tea

Let’s go back to where we started: There are actually times when alcohol is simply the wrong ingredient. Then you can either toss all the juices in the bar together into a glass and top it off with a slice of pineapple, or you can actually create something. A true iced tea is a damn fine thing, and well-worthy of its place at the bar.

Unfortunately, what we tend to regard as iced tea these days generally comes in a can chock-full of chemical additives no one can pronounce. That’s a lot of ingredients for a beverage that’s only supposed to consist of water and tea. The fact is that if you use a really good tea, you don’t need to add anything, not even lemon juice or sugar. This can appeal to a very particular segment of customers who still can’t help but feel a pang of guilt sipping on their “light” cola.

Oolong teas are ideal. Their pleasant mineral character is frequently augmented by fruity mandarin orange or peach flavors, or even orchids. A great iced tea candidate is roasted Tie Guan Yin tea, but you should be wary of the fact that many of today’s tea farmers only allow their Tie Guan Yin to oxidize for a very brief period. This reduces the fullness of flavors in the tea, leaving it tasting basically “green”. So take the time to find a Tie Guan Yin that’s produced in the traditional way. Alternatively, you can try Da Hong Pao if you can find one that’s affordable. The rest is easy:

5 g of oolong tea (roasted Tie Guan Yin)
500 ml of cold water

Allow to stand in the fridge for 8 hours, then strain. You can even use the leaves again for a second infusion.

In search of tea

It’s not easy to find good tea. A lot of cheating goes on in the tea world, particularly when it comes to prestigious names, so your best guide is often your nose. It’s possible in many tea shops to simply have what you’re interested in brewed up for a taste-test. A good indicator is the clarity of the taste. Carelessly produced teas often taste cloudy and undefined.

The easiest way to store teas is in the aluminum bags they are usually sold in. If you’re worried about what the neighbors might think you can simply put the bags inside tea cans that you can then store pretty much anywhere, but preferably in dark, cool places with no competing odors (important!). The exception here is matcha, which belongs in your refrigerator. Otherwise it quickly begins to lose its rich umami taste.

If you’re tea shopping in Zurich we recommend a visit to Shui Tang, where Ms. Chou is a true inspiration recognized throughout Europe as an oolong guru. In Cologne, Germany you’ll want to head to Teehaus Köln, while Frankfurt locals or visitors will find what they’re looking for at Teehaus Schnorr. And if you’re interested in the Japanese “Way of Tea”, a visit to the Teeseminar in Freiburg is indispensable. And now? Put on the kettle!


Translation by J.J. Collier


Foto: Tea via Shutterstock