Usually iced, most often sweet, tea is as beloved a refreshment in the South as the mint julep. It just usually doesn’t go into a julep. But at Bernadine’s, a restaurant in northwest Houston, bar director Leslie Ross does just that with her riff on the Prescription Julep, which is itself a cognac-and-rye-based version of the classic. Ross gives it a second twist by adding sorghum molasses infused with a smoky Earl Grey tea.
Tea—gentle, genteel, soothing—seems the exact opposite of today’s headstrong cocktail culture. Yet increasingly resourceful bartenders are turning to tea to add nuanced flavor and complexity to their drinks. And because it comes in such a wide variety these days thanks to the recent growth in specialty blenders and purveyors, they’re finding it makes an especially versatile weapon in their behind-the-bar arsenal. “I look at tea as an entire flavor bank,” Ross says. “If I’m looking for a certain profile, I can find it with tea.”
That tea and alcohol can play nicely together is not in itself a revelation. Tea was a common ingredient in the batched libations popular during the early days of American independence. Booze-heavy punches would be stretched out with tea instead of water to give them a fuller, richer flavor. With the rise of the modern cocktail in the late nineteenth century, punches—and tea—largely disappeared from the bar. But as antique punches have seen a revival, so too has their longtime companion. And if it can work in a punch, why not a cocktail?
At Empire State South in Atlanta, Kellie Thorn uses tea to push a drink toward either darker or lighter notes. “Black teas are roastier, more earthy,” she says, “while green teas are drier, more floral, and can even take on an ocean-like, salty flavor.” One of her most popular concoctions is Smitty’s Grande Tea, a combination of bourbon, lemon juice, Benedictine, and simple syrup with a teaspoon of Golden Assam, a rich and malty Indian black tea with notes of honey.
Then there are the herbal varieties. When Matt Tocco, the head bartender at Nashville’s Pinewood Social, makes a whiskey sour—generally bourbon, sugar, lemon juice, and egg white—he steeps Weller Special Reserve in something not often seen around Southern bars: chamomile tea. Unusual, but compelling—the chamomile gives the drink a light, warming overtone, sanding down the edge of the whiskey and pulling back on the drink’s sweetness.
And while you’ve surely had iced tea, how about tea ice? Jayce McConnell, the head bartender at Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, South Carolina, makes a drink called the Red Wedding, in which he freezes a blend of sweet tea, hibiscus, ginger, and thyme into cubes and places them in a mix of Elijah Craig twelve-year-old bourbon, Averna (a sweet Italian liqueur), and muddled orange peel. As the cubes melt, the cocktail’s flavor transforms. “It’s boozy and bracing at first,” McConnell says, “but as you go, it gets more spicy and tannic.”
You don’t have to mess with infusions and ice cubes, however, to bring tea to a cocktail. Boiling it down to a simple syrup can make an excellent complement to whiskey-based drinks. Take Sweet Texas Tea (see recipe), an aptly named libation from Eric Brooks, the bar manager at CBD Provisions in Dallas. Brooks combines a sweet-tea-based syrup with lemon, mint, and a healthy pour of bourbon for a more potent take on the South’s quencher of choice.
“Tea and bourbon just go together,” Brooks says. “Tea brings a nice herbal component, and it’s really friendly. When you see tea in a drink, you know it’s going to be refreshing and delicious.”