Drinks & Eats

Tea for Spirits: The New World of Tea and Alcohol

Iced Tea Martini
Iced Tea Martini

Tea: the infusion of dried leaves into water. It is as we've always understood it to be, a decoction of the tea plant into hot liquid. But when you take the leaves of the tea plant (or an herb, spice, root etc.) and place them into something other than water, say, a spirit such as vodka, you open a pandora's box of possibility.

This past year saw an unprecedented rise in the amount of tea-infused spirits nationwide, from the trendiest cocktail bars to Mason jar home infusion, suddenly everyone is giving it a try. A few weeks ago The New York Times imprint T Magazine did a piece on their rising popularity. While this sudden mania may seem alarming at first, similar ideas like Coffee Stouts have been brewing for years and using botanicals to infuse spirits (ingredients as familiar as orange peel, coriander, elder flower, caraway) has been a tradition since time immemorial.

Blame it on a brutal winter but hot cocktails have surged in popularity as of late and if the ingredients are going to be hot, what could possibly be more cozy than tea? Like any beverage derived from the earth, the natural wealth of tastes, aromas and textures that the tea leaf offers complement any number of concoctions. There are a couple of classic cocktails that will often utilize Camellia sinensis: The Hot Toddy, Gunfire—but for the most part this is a brand new world for mixologists and, in an already fertile climate for drink invention, the possibilities are compelling.

On the last Wednesday of each month Adagio Teas' retail location in Chicago hosts an after hours Tea-Infused Cocktail night. The staff mixes a seasonal selection of spirits with in-house offerings. Since its inception in Chicago, retail competitors David's and TeaGschwender have emulated with nights of their own. All vendors have had continuing success with the night. Why not? Around town, mixing tea and liquor is by no means unique to the dominion of tea shops: the Aviary, the Violet Hour, Punch House and Scofflaw have all, at some point, implemented tea cocktails into their menus.

Some wonder if the sudden deluge of tea into the mainstream (see: Starbucks' acquisition of Teavana), whether by dessert, chocolate or cheese will hurt small, artisinal vendors trying to make their way in the field. Unlikely. As Jesse Jacobs, owner of Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco said recently of skyrocketing tea sales, "It's a recognition that tea is the next big thing.” Whether tea's new ubiquity is found in cocktails or gourmet dishes, café plates or wholesale shelves, Starbucks or your home cabinet it's all symptomatic of the same phenomenon: the rise of tea in the United States.

A quick search and you'll find dozens of articles online to sate your tea and alcohol curiosity. There are a wealth of tutorials on how to infuse spirits but you can also find examples of brewing tea beer (yes, beer) and even a Merlot infused with Golden Monkey. But, if you'd like to start basically, I recommend this recipe for Jasmine Silver Needle infused gin. Cheers and good luck!

Jasmine Silver Needle Infused GinIngredients:
  • 750ml Gin
  • 4 Tbsp of Jasmine Silver Needle loose tea leaves
  • An empty, clean bottle or container (at least 750ml)
  • Strainer
  • Funnel (optional, for easy pouring)

  • 1. Open bottle of gin and dose tea leaves directly into the bottle, gently breaking if need be.
    2. Seal the bottle and shake thoroughly, making sure all leaves are deluged.
    3. Let sit for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes, or to taste.
    4. Strain infusion into empty bottle or jar. If desired, rinse tea leaves from the Gin bottle and pour infusion through a funnel back into original bottle.

    If properly sealed and stored, will keep indefinitely.