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Drinkable Wednesday: In the leaves

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_MG_8396 - credit Rare Tea Cellar.jpg

by guest blogger Seanan Forbes

Tea in cocktails. It may look like a new trend, but according to Peter Vestinos, now in charge of West Coast sales and marketing for Death's Door Spirits, it has quite a history. "Before we started cocktails in the U.S., there were punches in the UK," he says.

Ask Vestinos about history, and you're in for an education - in linguistics, as well as tradition. Supposedly, the word "punch" is derived from the Hindi word "ponch," which means "five," and punch has five elements: sweet, sour, bitter, weak ("something to water it down," Vestinos says) and spirit. There was always, Vestinos notes, a spice - and "that spice was usually tea." Not new, then. "Tea shows up early in our cocktail history," he says. How early? The 17th century. That's a drink with a lineage.

Rodrick Markus, founder and president of Rare Tea Cellar (the website,, will go live in a couple of weeks), has worked with more than a dozen Chicago bartenders on the making of tea cocktails. "I'm blown away by how each mixologist handles a blend," Markus says. "It's like a chef."

Sepia's Joshua Pearson, Adam Seger of Nacional 27, Death's Door Spirits' Vestinos and John Kinder each takes a completely different approach to tea and cocktails. Markus is never bored. "I absolutely adore it," he says.

Then again, he absolutely adores tea. Markus' background is in psychology and hypnotherapy. He started importing, and found his way into wine and cigars - and a problem. "Your best clients are abusing the product. It felt like the opposite way to how I wanted to be living," he says.

photos courtesy Rare Tea Cellar

_MG_8589 - credit Rare Tea Cellar.jpg

Unbeknownst to Markus, what his background in wine and cigars had prepared him for was tea. "I started noticing all of the bouquet and the aroma, especially when I found Pu-Erh and learned that it could be aged in a wine cellar, I just went gaga," he says.

He isn't alone in appreciating the flavors. Vestinos, Markus and Carrie Nahabedian, chef-owner of Naha, collaborated on a dinner that celebrated the cocktail. That night, every cocktail featured tea.

Chefs and mixologists think of tea as an ingredient. Use it in food or cocktails. In spirits, it's an easy infusion. Here, you can use the pricey stuff. "It doesn't take a tremendous of leaves," Markus says.

Better grade tea will make a higher quality liquor or liqueur. (There are extremes. "We have access to Pu-Erh that is $500 a gram," Markus says. That's not likely to show up in a restaurant's cocktail - although one never knows).

In contrast to fruit infusions, there's a very short wait time. Decide at lunchtime that you want to serve a tea spirit with dinner, and your infusion can be ready before the appetizers.

Markus makes it sound easy. Take a bottle of vodka and add 1 ounce (28 grams) of tea. The lighter the leaf, the longer you leave it in. Lapsang Souchong may be done in a couple of hours; a light, delicate tea may take three or four. If you want it sweet, then add simple syrup.

If you're after cocktails, and not infused spirits, then learn from Vestinos' experience. "Double-strong, double long. In order for tea to stand up in a cocktail, I brew it twice as long to make it stronger and a little bit tannic, so it has a grip in the cocktail."

Tannic: same as wine. Vestinos likes the mouthfeel. "I'm very much a textural person. I think about acid and fruit and tannin," he says.

Fruit appears twice in Vestinos' Pu-Erh cocktail: as blood orange in the tea and cider in the drink. For cider to match the quality of the tea, hit Seedling Fruit's stand at Green City Market. Depending on the season, you may find Mutsu, Jonagold or Golden Delicious (or tart cherry, but that's a drink of a different color).

Vestinos and Markus would encourage you to experiment. With the range of teas on the market, there's no shortage of flavors. Smoky, floral, bold, subtle . . . For one little leaf from one little bush, tea brings a lot to the bar.

Peter Vestinos' Pu-Erh Cocktail
1.5 ounces Oronoco rum
1 ounce Blood Orange Pu-Erh Tea (brewed double strength)
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce apple cider (reduced by half on stove)
1/4 ounce simple syrup (sugar melted in an equal portion of water)

Shake and strain into a snifter and float a fresh basil leaf.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.



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This page contains a single entry by Janet Rausa Fuller published on September 1, 2010 9:33 AM.

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