A Look at Tea in Booze | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Look at Tea in Booze

Making the world’s favorite beverage even more popular

Fuji Slushee from Umami
Fuji Slushee from Umami
I’ve never given tea much thought. You drank it hot for a sore throat, cold to wash down barbecue, and that was about it. A few years ago, however, I came across Lapsang souchong, a Chinese smoked black tea that kept finding its way into my cocktail shaker. Tea was suddenly a lot more interesting.

The practice of combining tea with booze is nothing new. For centuries, British soldiers would dilute their daily tot of rum with black tea for a simple cocktail called a Gunfire. Tea also appeared in a variety of classic punches, boozy yet caffeinated concoctions that were the 18th-century equivalent of a vodka Red Bull. And it’s a safe bet that day drinkers were adding hooch to their iced tea long before the (tea-free) Long Island Iced Tea was invented.

These days, tea is moving from background player to starring role behind the bar. “Tea can actually be any herb or spice you can think of,” explains Danielle Spinola, owner of Tupelo Honey Teas. “Muddled sage, muddled basil … you can do that with a tea as well. It just broadens your ability to make drinks.” And you needn’t look far to find the range of possibilities tea presents. Try a Caravan Old Fashioned at Spirit, which is sweetened with a syrup made from smoky Russian Caravan tea. Or head to Umami for a Fuji Slushee, a rum drink made with trendy matcha tea.

Local brewers are giving tea some love as well. Last summer, Spinola worked with East End Brewing to create an Arnold Palmer-inspired shandy using Irish breakfast tea. Roundabout Brewing makes the Earl Grey Pale Ale, which is loaded with the floral bitterness of bergamot. And Full Pint Brewing uses tea in the aptly named T-Funk, a blackberry Berliner Weisse that’s a tart and refreshing summer treat.

Ready to bring tea to your tipples? Spinola suggests infusing tea into spirits to extract maximum flavor. Select a tea that complements the liquor: robust black teas work well with whiskey, whereas delicate herbal teas are better suited to gin or vodka. Steep the tea in your spirit until it reaches the desired strength (usually no more than 24 hours), strain, and get creative. Spinola once used tequila infused with her spicy cranberry tea blend to create a unique fall margarita.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a classic tea punch. Hidden Harbor’s Wes Shonk suggests this basic recipe: mix 2 ounces of over-steeped tea with ¾ ounces of simple syrup, a shot of your favorite spirit and the juice of half a lemon. This template can be scaled up and customized to your heart’s desire: For a summer party, perhaps, use mint tea and strawberry syrup.

Tea is the world’s most popular beverage for a reason. Complex yet infinitely flexible, tea is a worthy addition to your drinking arsenal.

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