All the sweet tea I consumed as a child in South Carolina seeded what has become a passion for life. From humble beginnings, I emerged as a young opera singer, and then as a chef, writer, and restaurateur—professions that have included frequent travels to Europe, Asia, and Africa, places with engaging tea traditions of their own that caused my youthful love of the beverage to blossom. I now take great delight in my daily ritual of drinking tea. It’s only natural that it would eventually make its way into my evening cocktail.
Beyond teatime, it’s bourbon time. All my friends and family know bourbon as the house drink in the Smalls home. A dinner invitation implies bring bourbon—not wine, not flowers, not a store-bought pie. My appreciation for the spirit was indirectly born out of a fascination with the fresh mint that grew wild near the outside water spigot at my parents’ house. As a kid, I loved to stuff a handful of the leaves in my iced tea with fresh lemon slices and pretend I was sipping on a sophisticated cocktail like the ones I saw in the movies on TV.
In high school, as a young singer, I was often invited to perform at gatherings, such as luncheons for ladies’ garden groups and receptions. On one occasion, I noticed a tray of shiny frosted silver cups with mint and crushed ice being passed out to all the guests. I couldn’t wait to finish singing and head to the beverage station to try what I assumed was iced tea with mint in a fancy goblet. My excitement turned to disappointment as the bartender explained that I was not allowed to drink the rich dark mixture with the amazing sweet, burnt oak aroma—not tea, but a mint julep made with bourbon, a spirit I was not yet old enough to enjoy.
From that moment, bourbon became a destination I knew I would one day inhabit. And as I made it my spirit of choice as an adult, it became part of my rhythm. Hot tea in the morning. Iced tea in the afternoon. Bourbon in the evening. The idea to marry the two, then, happened organically.
As I tinkered with combinations, I landed on Lapsang souchong, a black tea I came to love during my travels to mainland China. Made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant that have been dried over a pinewood fire, Lapsang souchong brews a bold, intense, smoky tea like no other. I first started drinking it with honey and lemon, much like a hot toddy. But I liked the smokiness so much I soon began cooking with the honey tea, using it to poach a duck breast or legs, which I’d then serve cold with a ginger jam and a robust root salad.
When I tried Lapsang souchong with bourbon, the effect was transformative: The rich color and bitterness from the tea’s tannins complemented the smokiness of the barrel-aged American whiskey. To round out the flavors, I added oleosaccharum, a sugary oil made from citrus; these days, you can buy a bottle, or simply make it a minimum of three hours beforehand by steeping lemon peels in sugar. Grated candied ginger gives it a sweet, spicy kiss that lingers beautifully. In the evenings, this delicious, refreshing cocktail, made with equal measures Southern comfort and playful abandonment, offers a global spin on a familiar theme.
HOW TO MIX IT UP
Let’s make enough for a dinner party of 6. Combine 1½ cups bourbon or American whiskey (such as Uncle Nearest or Woodford Reserve) and 2 tea bags (or 2 teaspoons of loose) Lapsang souchong in a 1-quart shaker or mason jar. Let steep at least 15 minutes (you can also infuse the bourbon up to 1 month ahead, keeping it in a covered container at room temperature). Discard the tea bags, or strain the mixture if using loose tea. Return the infused bourbon to the jar. Add ½ cup oleosaccharum, 1 teaspoon of grated crystallized ginger, and 1 cup chipped ice. Cover tightly and shake vigorously until chilled. Fill 6 old-fashioned glasses with a large ice cube, and strain the mixture into them. Garnish each with fresh mint sprigs and a charred orange slice, which you can make by coating orange slices in sugar and ground cinnamon (a pinch per teaspoon of sugar), and then quickly broiling them in the oven.