Mixologists find new muse in tea

The brew is appearing in cocktails across the country

The tea-laced Pera Te cocktail at Mercadito

Fragrant, flavorful and alluring, tea is a mixologist’s muse these days. The number of cocktails sporting a tea-infused spirit or syrup, or featuring brewed tea as a mixer, is growing — a testament to consumers’ growing appreciation of tea and to bartenders’ continuing search for new sensations.

With the wealth of black, green, white and oolong teas on the market, not to mention herbal varieties and blends, there is plenty for the creative mind to mull.

“I think we will see a lot more tea-based cocktails for the remainder of this year and into next year,” said Tad Carducci, who with Paul Tanguay forms the beverage consulting duo the Tippling Bros. “More bartenders will latch on to them because they are easy to use, and they can be very dramatic in cocktails.”

The partners often add tea to drinks for flavor, color and body — the last a function of tea’s tannic and astringent compounds, Carducci said. Black teas deliver the most robust impact, while more delicate green and white teas are subtler in effect.

At Mercadito in Chicago, a Mexican-inspired restaurant in the Mercadito Hospitality group, Carducci and Tanguay, who are also partners in the company, crafted a drink called Pera Te that features blanco tequila infused with black tea, plus mezcal, pear purée, fresh lime juice and agave nectar. “The black tea acts as a vehicle that combines all the flavors really well and gives it a sort of astringent, earthy note,” Carducci said. “It’s a fairly complex cocktail that’s still very refreshing.”

Another Mercadito specialty, the Cookie Cutter [7], is framed with reposado tequila infused with a gingerbread-like blend of ginger, spices and South African rooibos herbal tea leaves. Curaçao liqueur, lemon and dark Mexican beer round out the cocktail’s palate.

As a rule of thumb, Carducci recommends using about three tablespoons of tea leaves per liter of spirits in an infusion. He suggests letting the tea soak in the spirit for 45 minutes to several hours, depending on the effect desired and the products used. However, Carducci cautioned that excessive steeping will produce an aggressively tannic potion.

As for spirits, vodka picks up tea flavors well, with its essentially neutral character, Carducci said, but he has also had success infusing Cognac, rye, bourbon, tequila and white rum.

At Stella Rossa Pizza Bar in Santa Monica, Calif., tinkering with tea in the kitchen led to the birth of a leaf-laced cocktail called TBN2. “We wanted to do a spin on the Pisco Sour and we were making these Earl Grey tea-infused cookies at the time, so we got the idea to try this with a drink,” said Jeff Mahin, chef/partner of the artisanal pizza concept, which is part of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

Short for “to be named,” TBN2 is a medley of pisco, elderflower liqueur and lemon, crowned with Japanese white tea foam. The foam is made by frothing tea, egg whites and sugar in a gas-charged whipped cream dispenser. The aromatic white tea foam adds a velvety texture, like the milky topping of a latte, Mahin said, while the underlying cocktail is “a little boozy and crisp and floral and citrusy.”

At Hub 51 in Chicago, brewed Chinese Keemun black tea is “a nice, dry, flavorful backbone” for lemon tea vodka and elderflower liqueur in Hot Hub Tea, said Eric Rose, general manager of the eclectic American restaurant, which is also part of LEYE.

The steamy signature is the house’s best selling hot drink, Rose said, noting that it outperforms coffee drinks by a ratio of five to one. “It gives the after-dinner drinker an alternative to a coffee cocktail or a drink like Scotch on the rocks,” he added.

Punches, those heady libations beloved in colonial times, are the popular specialties of the Oyster Bar at The Optimist, a seafood dining spot in Atlanta.

One of the favorites is Fish House Punch, inspired by a recipe that included Benjamin Franklin among its 18th century fans, said cocktail consultant Lara Creasy. Brewed black tea adds essential flavor and dilution to this formidable mixture of dark rum, V.S. Cognac, peach whiskey, sugar and lemon. The ingredients are simply stirred together and refrigerated for a minimum of three hours, but preferably for 12 hours, so the flavors meld before serving.

“Adding tea is a great way to get a lot of flavor into a punch while diluting the booziness,” Creasy said. “I like to use it because it keeps it from knocking your socks off.”