One of the exciting developments at the bar today is the growing popularity of coffee and tea as flavorings for cocktails. Restaurant and bar operators are using these staple beverages in signature libations to create anything from nuances of flavor and shades of color to robust, dramatic effects.
Spice and Tropical Tea drinks by the glass and pitcher are prominent on the cocktail list of Bar 54, the rooftop lounge of the Hyatt Times Square in New York City’s theater district. The drinks feature tea-infused spirits and tea syrups crafted with brewed tea and sugar or honey.
“We have base spirits as well as fruits, vegetables, tinctures and bitters to work with at the bar,” says Brendan Casey, a Bar 54 bartender. “Adding tea to the mix gives us even more flavors to play around with.”
According to Casey, tea infusions are quick and easy to make by soaking loose-leaf tea or tea bags in rum, gin or vodka. But it may take repeated experimentation to arrive at the desired flavor profile. Different brands of the same spirit or tea produce markedly different results. The infusion time ranges anywhere from 10 to 35 minutes, depending on the tea and spirits used.
“You have to find the sweet spot, sometimes by trial and error,” he says.
The Pacific Swizzle, one of Bar 54’s top sellers, combines passionfruit tea-infused white rum, lime juice and simple syrup. “The white rum is a clean, blank slate to start with,” says Casey. “The passionfruit tea flavor really pops and creates a bright pink color when you infuse it.” It is served in dramatic fashion over crushed ice in a tall pilsner glass with an edible pansy garnish. “When people see it served, they want to order one.”
Hawaiian Iced Tea features two tea applications — orange vodka infused with Hawaiian tropical black tea and mint tea syrup — plus lemon. It is served in a tall glass with an orchid. “People love it,” says Casey. “It’s a nice sunny day sipper.”
Hive Five is a riff on the Bee’s Knees, a Prohibition-era cocktail of gin, honey and lemon. Bar 54’s interpretation uses gin infused with a tea blend that has nuances of vanilla, coconut and pipe tobacco, plus grapefruit and elderflower liqueurs. “We’ve given it a modern twist as a tea cocktail,” says Casey.
Cocktails with a coffee kicker are prominent in the bar repertoire of Taste By Niche in St. Louis. The popular spot, which features creative cocktails and small plates, is one of the five Niche Food Group concepts based there.
An example is Uppers and Downers, a concoction of local cold brew coffee, Italian aperitif wine, Italian sweet vermouth and maple syrup, shaken, strained on the rocks into a highball glass, topped with club soda and garnished with an orange slice.
“It is refreshing and full of flavor, as well as relatively low in alcohol,” says Taste bar manager David Greteman. “It’s a great option for a night of food and drink.”
Another popular java drink is the Winnebago Pin-Up, a piquant medley of cold brew coffee and silver tequila that has been infused with pink peppercorns and serrano peppers, plus a dash of Italian rhubarb amaro.
“Coffee, especially a cold brew, matches well with the earthiness of the tequila,” says Greteman. “You get the acids that round everything out, plus chocolate, fruity notes and sometimes floral notes, depending on the coffee you use.”
Exploring the versatility of coffee in alcohol-free specialties, Greteman is developing a summer drink recipe that melds cold brew with fresh thyme, lime juice, orange juice and a tiki cocktail base that has gingerbread-like spices.
The many flavor profiles of coffee and tea, and the fact that they do not add calories to drinks, encourage bartenders to experiment with new cocktail applications. “Consumers are looking for variety and new flavor experiences in beverages, and premium coffees and artisan teas do a great job of providing that,” says Robert Cole, senior vice president, marketing, of Royal Cup Coffee & Tea.
Poised for greater use in cocktails is cold brew coffee, fast-rising in popularity because its cold-water steeping method creates a very smooth, drinkable taste, Cole says.
Artisan tea, with its black, green and oolong forms and fruit and herbal blends, also offers abundant inspiration to cocktail creators. Shaking tea with spirits and mixers in a cocktail shaker “creates excitement, fun and a bit of theater at the bar,” Cole says.