Steeped in tradition, tea takes turn in cocktails as herbal boost

Like many people who make New Year’s resolutions, I aim to eat healthy, get fit and cut bad habits out of my routine — at least through the month of January.

Drinking cocktails, therefore, hasn’t really fit into my newfangled diet. Full of booze, sugar and other ingredients that your body doesn’t need, cocktails won’t ever be considered good for you. But they can be made better for you by the addition of ingredients like tea. Tea is my new hope.

Made from the caffeine-filled, antioxidant-rich plant Camellia sinensis, tea is something I never thought to combine with alcoholic beverages. It was the warm, healing elixir you turned to when you wanted to feel better on a cold day, or the iced, sweetened summer potion you sipped to feel refreshed by the pool. But last fall, I noticed that tea was featured in original cocktails at multiple bars, from Drink.Well to Lustre Pearl to the Lobby Lounge at the Four Seasons.

That’s something Zhi Tea founder Jeff Lorien has noticed, too.

“Tea, as a sought-out and accepted component in restaurant and bar menus, is just starting to become commonplace,” he says. “We get asked about it a lot. People think about it as a critical option for cocktails.”

His tea shop in East Austin carries 100 different kinds of tea, which you can either take to go or enjoy there with some light bites. Many of them are well-suited for mixing with booze thanks to their herbal, vegetal or floral qualities — or a whole host of other adjectives you can use to describe their flavors.

“The thing is, tea is so versatile,” Lorien says. “They go from light and refreshing to savory, herbal, spicy, smoky. Tea gives (cocktails) a different kind of body that other ingredients just don’t have, as well as balance, contrast, complexity.”

Most commonly, tea is used in place of water for hot toddies, a cold-weather cocktail with honey, lemon juice and bourbon, or another dark spirit like rum. But get creative when you’re experimenting with tea and booze at home; you’ve got a lot of options to consider.

A whole book of them, in fact. A recipe guide to tea cocktails, “Wise Cocktails: The Owl’s Brew Guide to Crafting & Brewing Tea-Based Beverages” (Rodale Books, $19.99), was published last year by the founders of a ready-made, tea-based cocktail mixer called Owl’s Brew. Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield created the mixer, now available in three main flavors, to make tea cocktails easier to whip up — sometimes even sans alcohol.

“It all began with the simply beauty of tea itself: a sneaky ingredient with endless possibilities,” they write in the introduction. “When green tea is placed in water — hot or cold — you brew up an antioxidant machine, with metabolism-boosting properties. Add some peppermint and you have a focus-promoting powerhouse. Throw in vanilla, and you get — ta-da! — mood-boosting properties.”

Their book has a variety of recipes for each of the spirits out there — even ones that wouldn’t seem to pair well with tea, like tequila — as well as recipes for nonalcoholic sodas and smoothies. Some of them call for one of the Owl’s Brew bottles, which are available at places like West Elm Market and Williams-Sonoma; others will have you making your own tea base.

For those do-it-yourself tea cocktails, turn to Zhi Tea, where workers can point you toward a specific kind of tea and then tell you how to brew it to get the desired result. The shop’s Jessica Evans has even come up with recipes of her own.

As such, she’s got a lot of advice: “Always make your tea stronger than you think necessary” for cocktails, she says. “Don’t use more time to achieve this; instead, use more tea. Many people make the mistake of steeping the tea for too long to try and get more flavor. The results? Bitter, sour tea. Use more dry tea but stick with the suggested steeping times. You’ll love the power behind a tea concentrate.”

She also recommends being aware of balance. A stronger tea like rooibos, made from a South African plant — and thus a tisane versus true tea — “has nutty notes that beg to be enhanced by a robust spirit like bourbon or rum,” she says. On the other hand, a more delicate tea like white tea requires a spirit that won’t overwhelm it, making vodka or light rum ideal.

Another option to play around with is locally made: Lost Pines Yaupon Tea launched last year after one of the founders, Jason Ellis, decided to turn his longtime love of yaupon into a business.

Along with co-founders Heidi Wachter and John Seibold, Ellis is hoping that yaupon, North America’s only caffeinated plant — a relative to South America’s more well-known yerba maté — catches on with Austin’s tea drinkers in part because of its taste: slightly sweet with some nuttiness and none of the tannins that can give other teas a slight bite of astringency. But in offering Lost Pines Yaupon Tea, the trio is also helping ranchers in Bastrop who consider the hardy, drought-resistant plant a nuisance.

“It hampered the efforts to stop the Bastrop wildfires in 2011,” Wachter says. “The fire got so big because the yaupon acted as ladder fuel, carrying the fire into the tree canopy. Now it’s choking out the growth of the baby pines and threatening to turn the forest into a yaupon thicket.”

She, Ellis and Seibold have collected the yaupon that residents there are happy to be rid of and make it into loose-leaf tea. They’ve already experimented with Lost Pines Yaupon Tea in cocktails and found that the light roast is better for vodka and gin and the dark roast for whiskey and dark rum.

“We even took some of it into a bar one night and made hot toddies with it,” she says.

Whatever tea you choose for a cocktail, Evans recommends making sure it’s one of your favorites. “Stay in your comfort zone for the first few drinks,” she says.

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