How to Get Creative with Tea

We’re not talking about Long Island.

We've used all of these and then some. Not pictured: My favorite, Tazo Green Ginger.

In my previous entry, I sang the praises of The Garden’s Secret, a unique cocktail found exclusively at Chicago’s The Duck Inn. To recap, The Garden’s Secret is made from a rare Swedish tea and a blend of liquors garnished with the world’s cutest little flower. Here, we’re going to talk about using tea as the base of, and inspiration for, your own signature cocktail.

To be clear, we’re using The Garden’s Secret as inspiration. We’re not trying to recreate it.

To try this at home, start with your favorite type of tea. At my house, we use Earl Grey, different variations of green tea, or whatever herbal/floral blend we’ve picked up. Sometimes, we even use guayusa, an Amazonian tea-like leaf that’s supposed to boost energy and alertness. The brand doesn’t matter. Price really doesn’t matter, either. You can get fancy if you want, but plain old Celestial Seasonings works just as well as the more expensive stuff. (In fact, I think it works better, at least in the sense that the delicate notes of a high-end tea might get lost if you’re doing the liquor part correctly.) Type, too, doesn’t matter. Caffeinated, decaf, whatever you prefer. Pick something you like, something that you are familiar with so that your first attempts at mixing aren’t a total crapshoot.

We’ve found sun tea works best as a cocktail base. Grab a big pitcher and fill it with cool, filtered water. Suspend some tea bags (four or so?) so they’re immersed in the water. If you like your tea very strong, feel free to add another bag or two. Put the jar in a sunny outdoor spot where it won’t get knocked over, and let it sit outside all day. Refrigerate overnight and you’re ready to go. This makes an especially bold and flavorful tea; plus, it’s kind of fun to watch the color develop over the course of the day. (Going through a rainy spell? Feeling extra lazy? You can boil a pot of tea the regular way and let it cool.)

Once you have your tea brewed and chilled, it’s time to start playing. Rum and whiskey both work really well with many types of tea, especially more traditional flavors such as black tea blends. Gin tends to complement green tea and herbal tea blends, and even tequila is a possibility. A polite suggestion — skip the vodka this time around. You’re looking for flavors that enhance each other, rather than trying to mask the alcohol like we all so often do with vodka. In other words, you’re making a relaxing drink to savor; you’re not going to all this effort just to race to the bottom.

After you’ve found a basic pairing that you like (which will likely take a couple of attempts), think about what else it needs to be elevated to cocktail status (rather than just boozy tea). Take a look at the ingredients you already have in your kitchen. Honey or agave will add sweetness and viscosity to a bitter blend (and are traditional for tea, anyway). Other ingredients to consider are bitters, liqueurs, fruits or berries, and herbs (such as mint or basil). If you want a refreshing summer sipper, add a splash of seltzer or club soda. Let your base pairing of tea and liquor be the star, but don’t be afraid to try to create something that’s perfect for you.

One more thing — if you stumble upon a combination you really like, write it down so you can remember it. I hardly ever do that, though; the experimentation and element of surprise make it more fun. (And here I must apologize to my sister-in-law, who still occasionally reminisces fondly about a tea and whiskey blend we concocted last summer. We have no idea what was in it; in fact, I suspect it contained the dregs of several different iced teas mixed together and whatever was left in our brown liquor bottles. Don’t be like us.)

As always, have fun and enjoy!

Suggestions for garnish:

  • Berries
  • Fancy sugar cubes
  • A sprig of mint, basil, or rosemary
  • A wedge of lemon
  • A twist of orange zest
  • Edible flowers, such as hibiscus (if you’re throwing a fancy party)
  • A specific herb or flower from your tea blend

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How to Get Creative with Tea