Among all the jars of tea leaves, massive brewing towers, barrels and vials in the warehouse and office of Rodrick Markus, owner of Rare Tea Cellar in Chicago, what catches your eye first are eight massive vintage bottles of Chartreuse. “What drew me to collecting Chartreuse,” says Markus, “was the history behind it. And just how much it maintains its character and nuance over time—it’s almost like suspended animation.”
That phrase—”maintains its character and nuance over time”—is the driving philosophy behind Rare Tea Cellar, which Markus started 20 years ago following a career importing wine and cigars (and before that, psychology and hypnotherapy). “Originally, I was just trying to get everyone into ceremonial-grade teas,” says Markus, adding, “I was obsessed with the meditative aspect of tea.”
Still, it wasn’t until 2004 that he discovered that rare, single-varietal teas could be a cornerstone of his business. Following the opening of the Tea Cellar at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C., which Markus helped launch with designer Tony Chi, he began exploring avenues to sell his portfolio—which currently includes 2,000 teas across 600 vintages—locally to bars in the Chicago area. Among the first to use his teas in cocktails were Drawing Room and Sepia, and, upon opening in 2011, The Aviary. There, the debut menu featured a number of cocktails that employed Markus’ teas, including in the Rooibos, a tea-based gin cocktail built in a vac pot with more than a dozen aromatics.
“Rod came in with these cool teas,” recalls Clint Rogers, a longtime Chicago bartender and beverage director, formerly at The Gage, of his first meeting with Markus in 2008. “Performance teas, like his Emperor’s Moonlight Lychee Blossom, where the leaves are tied up in this way that, when it’s added into hot water, the bundle blooms into a flower; none of us had ever seen this kind of shit in Chicago.”
Markus’ demeanor is essentially that of a good friend inviting you over to listen to records, eager to turn you on to his new favorite band. His office is equal parts museum, lab and college dorm: there are Japanese woodblock prints, a massive cold-infusion drip tower and a small statue of Homer Simpson as Buddha, sitting in lotus position atop a donut with sprinkles and neon-pink icing. He speaks softly, betraying only the slightest hint of a Chicago accent, and his uniform of choice is an all-black suit, sans tie. He presents as just shy of formal—that is until his eyes get wide and he turns around to one of the massive shelves in his office. “Oh, you gotta try this!,” he blurts out, a giddy smile plastered across his face.
Over the course of two decades, Markus has become something of a Chicago icon, and a quiet mentor to the city’s talent during the height of the cocktail renaissance. “He cultivates both discovery and nostalgia,” says Julia Momose, a Chicago bartender and one of the partners at Kumiko, an omakase-style bar opening this fall. She was originally introduced to Markus at The Aviary and has since used his teas in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails, and even accompanied him this past May to Omi, a tea-growing region in Japan’s Shiga prefecture. “‘What was very special to me,’ Momose recalls, ‘was to witness [Markus] speaking with producers, asking them not how much the teas cost, but rather what was the wildest thing that they offer. His curiosity led us to some amazing discoveries.”
To that point, tea is no longer the only item that Markus is selling; in the past decade, he’s expanded his business into a kind of epicurean superstore, stocking cocktail syrups, bitters, salts, sugars, shrubs, botanicals, oils, vinegars, seasonings, produce (fresh, cured, dried, powdered—however you like it), cured meats, chemical stabilizers and more, much of which he sells to chefs and bartenders. Today, Rare Tea Cellar might supply a bar with everything from violet sugar to snow chrysanthemums.
“You meet people in the industry who are making things with this old-school approach,” says Markus, explaining why he can’t resist the urge to expand his portfolio. “And when you try this stuff you understand: ‘Oh, this is real.’ And then you want to wake people up a little.”