Steeped in Spirit

The tea cocktail trend goes beyond Hot Toddies

Bartenders will add liquor to any liquid given half the chance, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that tea cocktails are the latest darling of the drink menu. But creating a great tea cocktail doesn’t mean just tossing anything together. It turns out, there’s a method (or two) to the madness.

Infusing is hardly a new technique, but bartenders are discovering more nuanced flavors from steeping tea directly into a spirit. In fact, some bartenders won’t make tea cocktails any other way.

“There is just so much water in tea that it might dilute the liquor,” says Ryan Qualls, bartender at Neat in Glendale, Calif. The general rule of thumb is about three tea bags for one 750 ml bottle, steeped for 45 minutes.

"You have to have people behind the bar who understand different flavors and components. It's not just serving a rum and Coke."

— Vanessa Kemling of Bigfoot West

“Tea is very sensitive,” Qualls says. “The longer you steep it, the more bitter it gets. We want it light—just a hint.”

Tea-infused spirits make sense on the business side as well, particularly for highlighting low-end liquors, says Amanda Gunderson, bartender at La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills, Calif. A well rum, for example, might get more mileage with a peach tea infusion.

Tea can also be used to elevate well-known cocktails, such as the Green Tea Mojito created by Tad Carducci, partner and beverage director for New York bar, the Tippler. “The trick is to use the highest quality teas and blends that you can afford,” he says. For his green tea-based cocktail, Booty Collins, Carducci sources gunpowder tea from artisanal providers like McNulty’s in Manhattan’s West Village or Chicago-based Rare Tea Cellar.

The non-infused route is another viable option, as proven by the longevity of Hot Toddies (hot tea, whiskey, honey, lemon). Mixologist Rob Floyd likes to blend chilled Earl Grey tea and London Dry gin with a splash of lemon and sugar for his Royal Tea Gin Cocktail at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Infused or not, striking the right balance comes down to personal preference. Though the spirit is the moneymaker, tea elevates the taste. “It’s really easy to go with fruit tea because bartenders are so used to working with citrus,” Gunderson says.

Aidan Demarest, owner of Neat, says to be wary of green or earthy teas, which can end up tasting like “dirt drinks.” Blending two teas can boost the flavor profile; however, marrying similar profiles can muddle the flavor of both. And these cocktails aren’t always for the faint of heart—be wary of a tea’s caffeine content before blending to avoid a fight in the glass with everyone’s favorite sleep aid.

Mixologist Vanessa Kemling at Bigfoot West in Venice, Calif., builds her spirit from “softer spirits” like vodka or gin so it won’t dampen the flavor of the tea like a tequila might. That’s why Qualls chooses to infuse a neutral-tasting vodka with a stronger flavored cardamom tea. Complementary bases, such as a sweet bourbon and Chai tea, can also be a match made in heaven.

Tea cocktails benefit the most on specialty menus tailored to adventurous tipplers, but the trend is growing mainstream. “I think tea cocktails do have the ability to become the next big thing,” Floyd says. “In a way they already are—think of the Arnold Palmer. You can already add a spirit to that.”

Tea cocktails offer the versatility and creativity to pair with food or enhance a brunch cocktail list. The trick seems to be easing customers into the idea and getting them comfortable.

“It’s like introducing people to sushi,” Kemling says. “You start off with a California Roll and then you move on to more adventurous rolls.” 

Kirk Pynchon is a cocktail writer for the lifestyle website Societe Perrier.