Centuries ago, tea was used as a marquee element in the cocktail’s five-ingredient progenitor, punch. Today, bartenders at some of the world’s best bars have shown a revived interest in this nuanced ingredient, infusing a variety of teas of all tannin levels and flavors—from floral and herbaceous to savory and fruity—into spirits, syrups, cordials and more, unlocking its potential as one of the most versatile ingredients on the modern backbar.
“It’s not very often that you see a punch on a cocktail bar menu these days,” says Sondre Kasin, principal bartender at Michelin-starred COTE and the restaurant’s craft cocktail bar, Undercote. “It’s usually not the most cost-efficient way for bars to operate anymore. [Tea is] most common now as either [an element] in syrups or as an infused component in cocktails.”
Tea made its return to prominence near the start of the contemporary cocktail revival in the early 2000s thanks to Audrey Saunders’ Earl Grey MarTEAni, the only bona fide modern classic that requires a tea ingredient: Earl Grey–infused gin. Ever since, cutting-edge cocktail bars have begun using easy-to-source household teas such as Earl Grey, chamomile, oolong, rooibos and, more recently, the trendy matcha. But it’s only within the last year that tea has been catapulted into the mainstream as something more than just a flavoring agent.
“Modern tea cocktails are a bit different from historic tea-laced cocktails because there is more intention being used,” says Harrison Ginsberg, bar manager at New York’s Crown Shy. “Tea from specific regions [is being considered] rather than just a style. Single-origin tea is way more prevalent.”
To this end, bartenders are increasingly working with specialty tea retailers to explore out-of-the-ordinary expressions. One such purveyor is the London-based Rare Tea Company, with whom the award-winning Lyaness works regularly when developing cocktails for its menu, which has featured everything from Chinese peony white tea to the Spanish almond blossom. In Chicago, Rare Tea Cellar supplies noteworthy bars such as Kumiko and The Aviary with its own vast selection of specialty teas, like barrel-aged hot chocolate pu-erh or cave-aged oolong.
When working with these rare teas, however, it’s vital to understand the best way to draw out the tea’s flavor, whether by alcohol, water or fermentation, and at hot or cold temperatures. “There are numerous ways to extract tea,” says Will Meredith, head bartender at Lyaness. “Even just a standard brew can have so many variables that will impact the flavors extracted such as temperature, time and concentration. As a result, there is such a wide scope to work with.”
At Lyaness, Meredith and his team explored the various extraction techniques in the development of their “Tea-mooth,” an experimental take on a vermouth. “We played with a host of processes such as fermentation, kombuchas, enfleurage, infusions and sugars in order to create a vermouth using no external flavors other than the tea blend and its components,” says Meredith.
Using their custom Mr Lyan tea, curated by Henrietta Lovell (the owner of Rare Tea Company), Lyaness’ Tea-mooth is created via a blend of housemade kombucha; a vegetal wine made by fermenting the brewed tea with champagne yeast and some sugar; two tinctures made from alcohol that’s been fat-washed by tea-infused butter; and a cold-brewed tea that gets a dose of isomalt, creating a rich, thick mixture with just a touch of sweetness. The Tea-mooth is a high-concept ingredient that showcases the ability of a single tea to yield an array of flavors and textures, shining in multiple drinks across the menu, including Lyaness’ TOT-Negroni, made with Porter’s Tropical Old Tom gin, blackberry, tomato seed and Campari.
When it comes time to actually mix tea ingredients in cocktails, there are few hard and fast rules. “Tea works well in any style of cocktail,” says Erik Lorincz, owner and bartender at London’s Kwant, where he mixes a lapsang souchong tea kombucha with aged rum, buckwheat cordial and pimento dram in his Barquisimeto cocktail. At Gymkhana, a London-based Michelin-starred Indian restaurant and bar, the drinks list features a Silver Sip Gimlet, a stirred, Martini-like riff on the classic sour using an acidified Silver Tip jasmine tea cordial for the perfect balance of sugar, acid and tannin, the latter emulating the body that vermouth would typically add to a traditional Martini; in Singapore, Jigger & Pony’s Genmaicha Bellini showcases a genmaicha purée made from genmaicha tea, gin, agar agar and sugar, all topped with sparkling wine. At COTE Miami, meanwhile, Kasin and his team spotlight green tea’s ability to add tannin and depth of flavor in a frozen format alongside tequila, Cocchi Americano, lime juice and coconut.
Despite its apparent versatility, there are certain considerations to keep in mind when working with tea in terms of both flavor and texture. “Black teas inevitably bring in layers of tannins depending on how they are brewed or incorporated into the drinks, which always provides great grip in cocktails,” says Meredith, whereas “a good, herbal lemongrass tea will bring loads of oily, citrus notes to a drink, and some white teas give a delicate stone fruit pop.”
Likewise, certain teas pair better than others with particular spirits. “Gin and agave spirits work really well with certain green teas like genmaicha, or herbal teas like chamomile,” says Ginsberg, who employs a floral chamomile tea–infused gin in his Cantaloupe & Chamomile White Negroni. “If you’re using aged spirits, like whiskey and brandy, I find oolong tea to be a great place to start as you can add some incredible stone fruit notes to a drink without adding sweetness.”
Perhaps where tea is shining brightest in the modern cocktail world, however, is in the creation of nonalcoholic serves. “In no-ABV cocktails, I find tea to be a great ingredient to mimic the feeling of drinking alcohol since it is a natural source of tannin,” says Kasin. “You can overextract the tea to create even more bitterness and tannins [replicating the mouthfeel of a barrel-aged spirit].” At Kwant, meanwhile, Lorincz is using a scoby to ferment the bar’s own green tea kombucha, which he is planning to use on his next menu; Gymkhana offers a nonalcoholic version of the Silver Sip Gimlet, substituting a nonalcoholic aperitif, Æcorn Dry, for the gin.
More than two decades after Audrey Saunders introduced her Earl Grey MarTEAni, bartenders are realizing tea’s untapped potential as an ingredient with distinctive terroir and character just like wine and spirits. “Bartenders are beginning to explore the potential that teas have beyond using it simply as a flavored liquid,” says Meredith. “The more you dig, you can find examples of people exploring what tea can bring to drinks beyond the obvious brew and utilizing these teas in a brand-new light.”