Much like alcohol, tea has been a vehicle for social interaction for millennia, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that booze and brews came together as one. MoM popped the kettle on with Davide Segat, manager of London bar Punch Room, who spilt the tea on combining your cuppa with a cocktail…
Believe it or not, tea cocktails originated on the high seas. Sailors working for the British East India Company combined rum, citrus and spices to make Punch as an alternative to beer in heat of the Indian Ocean – and when they brought the beverage back to Britain, the flavourful refreshment soon became a cocktail in its own right.
“It was during this time that people started discovering spirits and transitioning away from their usual choice of beer or wine,” says Segat. “But these newly discovered spirits were too strong on their own and needed dilution to make them a more palatable and safe ABV, which is where water and tea came in. Water diluted down the spirit, tea added complexity and flavour.”
Today there are approximately 1,500 types of tea in the world, and they all fall under four different categories: green tea, black tea, white tea, and oolong. Each brings its own unique benefits and specific qualities to the drink. “A great jasmine tea can add an amazing floral taste profile, while a good black tea can add body,” explains Segat. “Lapsang provides a smoky effect and hibiscus – which is not strictly a tea, but worth mentioning – can add acidity. I recently tried a milk oolong tea which had incredible texture and the dairy flavour really shone through.”
With such an adverse array of flavour profiles to experiment with, it can take time to pair a strain with a spirit to get the effect you want. One of Segat’s complex creations, the Henrietta Cocktail, combines Banks 5 Island Blend rum with crushed sunset oolong tea – “to bring out the biscuit and chocolate notes” – jasmine, to “emphasise the refreshing side of the rum” and a bespoke tea blend made in collaboration with Rare Tea Company founder Henrietta Lovell to “heightened the citrus and spicy flavour profile” of the rum. “I personally enjoy using Banks rum due to its exceptional depth, complexity and aroma, with layers of flavour perfect for serving in a cocktail infused with tea,” he adds.
Now be a veritable tea and alcohol-pairing wizard, it was through celebrated bartender Nick Strangeway at London’s Hawksmoor that Segat first started to understand how tea could be used to impart flavours in drinks. For The Five: Volume III, the new cocktail menu at Punch Room, he and the team experimented with different types of tea through an exploration of five fundamental elements of ancient philosophy – earth, water, fire, air and aether.
Take ‘Water’ cocktail the Igloo, which combines green tea with Champagne, seaweed gin, cloudberry liqueur, lemon sherbet, lemon juice, ambergris and lemon sorbet. “The seaweed gin brings out the umami flavour in the green tea and the lemon oil in the sherbet brings out acidity and grassiness from the tea,” Segat explains. “The ambergris adds a floral note to the back of the palate. Great balance, and really shows how good green tea is.” In ‘fire’ cocktail Prometheus, they combined pu-erh tea from China, Pierde Almas mezcal, butter-washed mastiha (Greek pine liqueur), Amaro Montenegro, fennel pollen syrup and lime juice, resulting “in a creamy mixture with rich bitter notes”.
The application of tea to cocktails has certainly evolved since those formative Milk Punch days. “With the rise of a more health-conscious generation, we are seeing kombucha – made from a sweetened tea – becoming more and more prominent across the bar scene in the UK,” outlines Segat. He points to London bartenders Stu Bale and Ally Kesley for their “great use of jasmine tea to recreate perfume notes”, along with Ryan Chetiyawardana and the wider Lyan team, “who do a great job at fermenting and discovering new ways to use tea in their drinks”.
The future of the tea cocktail lies in lighter low-alcohol cocktails, Segat predicts. “They have been around for a couple of years and their rise will only continue. The way I see it, this year we will see simpler drinks and cocktails with fewer combinations and more focus being placed on extracting the best flavour from one or two particular ingredients – which will hopefully lead to more sustainable practice in drinks creation.”
Green Tea Punch
Brew the tea, then stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Add four cups of ice to chill and dilute the mixture, then add lime juice and rum. Chill before service. When it’s time to drink, add to a punch bowl filled with one large block of ice. Serve in punch cups filled with ice a garnish with grated nutmeg.