For about as long as people have been making drinks, tea has been an essential cocktail mixer, most notably in the historic and often celebratory punches of the 17th century. Long valued for its ability to add both aromatics and tannin, it’s no surprise that tea remains a means of enlivening not only contemporary drinks, but also modern interpretations of historic ones.
Kettle to the Metal
“Tea is one of the few truly essential ingredients in the punch-making pantry,” says bartender Will Duncan. “[It] lends bitter flavors, floral notes and tannic texture, all while weakening the punch to a quaffable ABV.” At Chicago’s Punch House, a bar dedicated to the modern cocktail’s centuries-old precursor, Duncan’s Regent Punch builds on a classic base of tea, Cognac, Jamaican rum, pineapple and Champagne, plus maraschino liqueur and orange juice for a 21st-century twist.
The possibilities for the types of tea best-suited for cocktails are as far-reaching as any other ingredient; looking towards those that offer complementary flavors is one strategy for choosing. In the Regent Punch, “green tea is best, as it allows this rather complex recipe to retain a soft and light character,” Duncan explains. “It feels tropical without being cloying, and drinks fresh and bright while offering nuance.” Ticonderoga Club’s Paul Calvert, on the other hand, turns to sweet, fruity rooibos in his easily scalable Pink Rabbit. “The drink is meant to sort of resemble a glass of crushable springtime rosé in both appearance and flavor profile, while packing a bit more heat,” explains Calvert. Stirred with a simple, summery mix of gin, white vermouth and lemon, the rooibos not only adds color but also functions as an effective lengthener, for a less-spirituous drink.
Meanwhile, Damon Boelte of Brooklyn’s Grand Army goes the high-proof route, opting for bourbon in his Yazoo Street Scandal. “If you’re using [tea] as a basic ingredient rather than [in] an infusion or a syrup, you have to up the strength and richness of the drink via a spirit or a liqueur,” explains Boelte. Here, a mix of both black tea and hibiscus tea syrup plus muddled mint make for for a refreshing Mojito-inspired Collins. Kirk Estopinal of New Orleans’ Cure relies on the ingredient in syrup form, too: his Rose Tinted Glass incorporates an herbal tea simple, made from toasted fennel seeds, Cognac, lemon and rosewater.
Of course, some bartenders are skipping the water altogether and infusing tea directly into spirits, as Brad Farran does in his Mount Olympus Collins. “Tea lends an otherwise pedestrian cocktail its missing third dimension,” explains Farran, whose drink sees flower tea-infused gin, lemon apricot liqueur and the tiki-favorite orgeat shaken together, poured over ice and topped with soda water—adding another drink to the list that proves a tea cocktail’s reach can stretch far beyond punch.