It all started with one drink. When Audrey Saunders opened the now-iconic Pegu Club in SoHo, New York, in 2005, she shook up some lemon juice, simple syrup, an egg white and Earl Grey tea-infused Tanqueray gin, poured out a glossy, frothy "marteani" and seeded the tea cocktail craze.
With the Chocolatini a near-extinct species on cocktail menus, and the rise of bitter, more savoury concoctions like a smoked Manhattan or medicinal Negroni, tea offers something other than flavour – bitterness.
"Oversteeping tea draws out the bitterness," says Trevor Burnett, owner of Tipicular Fixin's, a cocktail consultancy based in Toronto, who teaches tea cocktail workshops. "So it means at home, you can skip the step of adding bitters, the tea does it for you."
The easiest way to use tea in cocktails at home is to make a simple syrup, he says. For a large batch, boil four cups of water, steep half a cup of loose leaf tea for 1.5 hours, then heat to dissolve four cups of any sweetener (sugar, cane syrup, honey, agave), pour into sterile jars and refrigerate.
Shabnam Weber, a tea sommelier who owns Toronto boutique The Tea Emporium, offers this advice. "When I infuse a spirit I always leave the tea in for 24 hours, until the spirit takes on those flavours."
At Toronto Temperance Society, a private member's club devoted to the art of the cocktail, bartender Robin Kaufman also recommends infusing a spirit with tea (his favourite: whisky and chamomile). Simply add loose-leaf tea to the bottle, shake, let sit for one to three hours depending on the mix, and strain. "When it starts to taste like an oversteeped tea, it's ready. Don't leave it too long or you'll lose the base spirit."
Kaufman mixes me the classic Earl Grey Sour that started this brew-haha. The tea's soft citrus and tannins give way to a brighter tasting Tanqueray with spruce and lavender notes, leaving the tea's smoky tannins to linger after the last sip. It's unbelievably delicious.
"This drink is so good it's almost unfair to put it on the menu," says Kaufman. "It's like the mojito, it just dominates sales, barely giving the other cocktails chance."
Where to try the hard stuff:
Lot 30, 151 Kent St., 902-629-3030, lot30restaurant.ca
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, 1 rue des Carrières, 418-692-3861, fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec
Weslodge Saloon, 478 King St. W. Toronto, 416-274-8766, weslodge.com
Cold Tea, 60 Kensington Ave., Toronto, 416-546-4536
Murray Street, 110 Murray St., 613-562-7244, murraystreet.ca
Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar, 245 Richmond Rd., 613-728-0220, juniperdining.ca
Taste, 1210 1 St. S.W., Calgary, 403-233-7730, taste-restaurant.com
Boneta, 12 Water St., Gastown, 604-684-1844, boneta.ca
Chambar, 562 Beatty St., 604-879-7119, chambar.com