Drink Up: Tea Time

Tea time is typically around 4pm -- but it's always 5 o'clock somewhere, right?

We're slaves to beverages from coffee to cocktails, so it makes perfect sense that we're obsessed with tea-based booze. Just think, one little scoop of leaves -- from grassy green sencha, to chamomile to smoky lapsang souchong -- can give a spirit depth and complexity.

We headed to one of our favorite watering holes, West Hollywood's elegantly rustic Eveleigh and cornered chatted with their resident barman, Dave Kupchinsky, about his favorite infusions.

Kupchinsky -- who has earned the moniker "Ol' Man Winter" around bar circles because of his dry humor -- worked with New York cocktail guru Audrey Saunders at the Tar Pit before he took over the bar program at Eveleigh. It was through Saunders that his tea cocktail inclinations developed. "She made an egg white sour with earl grey-infused gin," he wistfully recalls.

But don't let his chilly nickname fool you. "Ol' Man Winter" is a warm chap, quick to dole out some solid advice: "You have to decide what you want to do with [tea] first," he says. "Is the drink going to be about the booze, or is going to be about the tea?"

To break it down, there are three ways tea can make an appearance in a cocktail:

1. As an alcohol-free mixer

Before we even get into infusions and more complicated uses, tea on its own -- just steeped in hot water until the desired strength is met -- is a great way to use tea in cocktails. We've paired hot chamomile with Irish whiskey and fernet in our Nite Tea Night cocktail, and used chilled peach tea as a punch base. Just pair with an alcohol, add some simple syrup or a sweet liqueur and you've got an easy 1-2-3 cocktail.

2. Infused in booze

Plunking leaves directly into booze is Kupchinsky's favorite method of incorporating tea in a cocktail, and he gave us a few great tips:

- Steeping time: "Whenever I do something new I start with about two hours, and then I taste-test it until I feel like it's right. It can be anywhere between two and four hours. It depends on the booze. The higher the proof of alcohol, the shorter amount of time that you need to steep."

- Tea-to-liquor proportions: "I've found a good ratio to start out with is 6 ounces of tea to a 750 ml bottle of booze."

- Tea and liquor pairings: "If I had to think of one rule, I'd say the lighter the spirit, the lighter the tea you should use."

While we chatted, Kupchinsky mixed us up one of the bar's most popular cocktails, The Eveleigh Lemonade, using a chamomile-infused tequila. It was originally just on the summer cocktail menu, but was so popular that it's now a regular item. The chamomile is present but not overwhelming, and adds a mellow grassiness that you couldn't get from any other mixer. There's a touch of sweetness from the honey, but more so from the Combier and Cocchi Americano -- which is a cousin of Lillet Blanc -- plus a little smokiness from the tequila. In essence: the perfect summer sipping cocktail. It almost begs for a lazy game of croquet to be played in its honor.

For our guest-bartending stint at Eveleigh, we created something with more octane (read: caffeine) called the Thai One On. When Eveleigh kept it on the menu for a few weeks, we blushed and swooned.

3. Flavoring a simple syrup or Vermouth

Kupchinsky is a fan of simple syrups, bitters, and sweet wines infused with tea flavors. "I like to do a lot of infused vermouths. You can use sweet vermouth and dry vermouth, but there's also vermouth blanc that's like a sweet white vermouth. So instead of adding sugar to the cocktail, you add [vermouth] that has depth and weight, instead of cloying sweetness that you get from sugar."

To demonstrate, Kupchinsky shook up the bar's signature cocktail, The Eveleigh -- a mix of Plymouth gin, Dolin vermouth infused with lavender and rose Rooibos tea, and Barolo Chinato (which is basically an herby vermouth). Garnished with two dried roses, the drink was perfectly balanced with medicinal juniper notes, sweet wine, the floral infusion and the almost dusty roundness of the rooibus red tea.

Overall, the best advice for those wishing to embark on some tea-cocktail experimentation is to start in small batches and taste what works. Kupchinsky told us that Chado Tea Room is his favorite place to pick up varieties of loose leaves and see what pairs best with liquors.

"I always feel like tea cocktails are cheating a little bit because it's so easy," says Kupchinsky. Somewhat reassuring advice coming from a pro.

Photos by Alie & Georgia.

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About the Author

Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark are best friends, TV shows hosts, and cocktail experts.
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