Steep And Shake Well
Tea Takes On the Cocktail Hour
This would be the first time I’ve ever been shopping for tea. It’s not that I don’t know anything about tea. I am familiar with the primary colors (Black, Green, White, Orange Pekoe, Red Zinger*), and I know that lighter teas require a lower steeping temperature than black, and I know (now) that you can’t just cut the top off of a Bigelow green tea bag and pour the contents into the acorn-shaped tea ball your grandmother gave you and expect good results.
Also, I keep a box of Luzianne family-sized bags around for nostalgic refreshment when hit by the heat of melancholy that creeps in during the dog days of summer just before school starts (even though it’s been decades since I’ve had to keep a school schedule). Some ginger green tea I stir heavy with honey and lemon every winter to ease the ague. But these are tangential (often impulse) purchases made at the grocery just before hefting the 55 gallon can of Chock full o’ Nuts into my buggy.
But today, stepping into The Spice & Tea Exchange to explore this world, neatly organized kiosks of spices, rubs, salts and teas beckoned with scent and color. Each one offering enough to keep me occupied for hours. Just before I hit sensory overload, Grace approached and kindly offered her help. She was a jewel, walking me through flavor profiles, tannin levels and warnings about bitterness from over-steeping. Grace even shared some of her own secrets and recipes, one of which I shamelessly stole (but happily give her credit for).
When writing these pieces, I often already know what I want my recipes to be. This time, I opted to go in with an empty mind (no stretch) and let my findings direct the path of the cocktails. After sticking my nose in over 40 jars of dried leaves and bits, I found these four tea blends I wanted to play with.
* Boom! Celestial Seasonings joke...nailed it.
smoked black tea
When Grace pulled this one off the shelf and told me to smell it, I thought “pipe tobacco.” I could not imagine finding this refreshing to drink. Then she told me her secret… brew the tea strong and freeze it into ice cubes to use to chill scotch. Ingenious! That is where that smokiness would be right at home. Remembering that cold mutes flavor, I had to play with quantities and steep times. Slightly increasing the tea to water ratio and tripling the steep time creates a cube that packed the smoky punch I was looking for. Choosing the right scotch also took experimentation. With a super-peaty Islay scotch, the combination was just too much. Dropped into a well-aged highland single malt, the smoke detracted from the finesse of the liquor. These smoky cubes showed brightest with good ol’ Cutty Sark. The smoke and tea beefed up the flavor of the light, blended scotch beautifully.
A blend of Sencha and Dragonwell green tea, mallow flower, cornflower, strawberry and rhubarb
I admit I was drawn to the name (Game of Thrones DTs??), but a sniff sealed the deal. Tart rhubarb and strawberry hit first, then underneath the creamy, vanilla-sweet notes delivered by the mallow flower. It has summer sipper written all over it.
Steeped with sugar and water, it became a marshmallow bomb. The strawberry and rhubarb were still there, but slathered in marshmallow fluff, like those Whitman Sampler pieces that get pinched but not eaten. It would still work, but needed balance. Bitter Campari has an herbaceous bitterness that acted the perfect foil, but it obliterated the tartness of the rhubarb. A couple dashes of Fee’s Rhubarb Bitters undid that. The result was a fruity, sweet, vaguely medicinal concoction with all the notes of a postmodern soda pop delicately crafted by some jerk (technical term) with a handlebar mustache and sleeve garters. Trying to figure how to booze it up, I ended up torn between a good citrusy London-style gin and the distilled Zelig that is vodka. Vodka (obviously) allowed the other flavors to shine, but the gin played so well with the Campari making it hard to resist. After taste-testing way too many of these, I still can’t decide which one I prefer.
Earl Grey Creme
black tea, orange peel, cornflowers, vanilla, bergamot, natural crème flavour
Sticking my nose in this tea, the creaminess and spice reminded me of a homemade Irish Cream liqueur recipe I read in Imbibe magazine awhile back. The profiles were similar enough to make a tea cream liqueur sound feasible, yet different enough to not be reinventing the wheel. If it worked, this would be a pleasant alternative to that ubiquitous coffee spiker. Using the Imbibe recipe as a guide, I made my first batch of Earl Grey liqueur, adding the tea leaves dry to the cream base once it came off the heat. I found the tea flavor lacking, muted by creaminess and sweet. On the second round, I “bloomed” the tea in rum for a minute or two before adding it to the cream. Wetting the leaves made a profound difference. The tea flavor was pronounced and shined despite the thickness of the beverage. To offset, I took the logical step by adding more rum. The extra rum thinned it nicely without becoming too boozy. I don’t know about pouring it in coffee, but on ice, it makes a tasty sipper.
Green tea, mint
I love a mint julep. Bourbon, mint and sweet combine in a way that gives you something so much greater than the sum of its parts. Sadly, I sure do hate to make a mint julep. Being a rather obsessive type, I won’t build a julep without using fresh mint and spending 20 minutes hand-crushing ice into a fine, sno-cone powder. Needless to say, I only make them in the summer when the garden is flourishing and I feel the need to expel pent-up frustrations using my ice mallet. Grace taught me that alcohol extracts flavor from tea more efficiently than water, so getting that flavor anytime of the year and replacing twenty minutes of exertion with twenty minutes of watching tea steep—well, that sounds like a win-win. The result (originally titled the “Lazy Julep”) hit that mark. The green tea adds a nuance that, while not recognized, bolsters the depth of the cocktail.