Saturday, April 16, 2011

Calling all Cocktails: It's Tea Time!


Mixologists are on a mission. Now that cocktail creation is gaining momentum as an art form, formally knighted "mixology," the creative cats behind it are in their "labs" trying to discover the next best twist for a cocktail - and not in the form of lemon or lime.

Cocktail Creations (reviewed left to right)
How 'bout a tea twist? Joaquin Simo thought it was a good idea, and how quickly he brought me around in agreement. He led the class I participated in at Brooklyn Wine Exchange featuring cocktails whose liquors were infused with different kinds of tea, from black to green to everything in between. We know that liquor infusion, as opposed to just throwing an ingredient into the mix, really amplifies the flavor of whatever that may be. I've seen it plenty with fruit-infused rums and vodkas, citrus and spice-infused tequilas. Even vegetable infusions; but never tea! Until now, that is.

Simo is part of the brains behind the cocktail-centric Manhattan bar Death & Company. Five of the seven colorful cocktails we generously sampled were reciped by him. Now, why include tea in the mix? We know that tea can often be very tannic, much like wine, so what is the secret to balancing that concentration of flavor? Simo says sugar. Now I have to be honest, upon first look-over of the recipes of each concoction, I was fearful of the omnipresence of sweetness. Every single one included either sugar cubes, a fruit juice or some sort of syrup - immediately off-putting to me, as I do not tend towards that palate. Well Simo quickly corrected my skepticism with the first sip he offered.

That was the white peony tea-infused Silver Needle, doctored by the man himself. Luksusowa vodka was the featured liquor, as vodka is known for pushing flavors forward. And push it did. With just lemon juice and acacia honey syrup (in equal parts) thrown into the blend the mellow yellow of this cocktail was fitting for its flavor. The white tea was unmistakably present, but pleasantly subtle with the under-note of vodka stringing it along. Its light acidity makes for the perfect outdoor wet-your-whistle refreshment. Think layered lemonade on a perfect spring day.

Next was the punch that took me most by surprise - Mother's Ruin Punch to be exact, which featured market spice black tea. Now I normally pass on the punch. Offer me a fruit juice-laden bowl o' sugar jitters and I say, no thank you. But this cocktail could not be more distant from that expectation. Instead, it gives you the warmth of fall, pumpkin pie, and cinnamon-spiked Christmas, thanks to the tea imbibing the Sweet Dolin Vermouth with such spicy depth. Muddled with Plymouth gin, lemon and grapefruit juice, club soda, sugar cubes, and bubbly, this punch was the perfect blend of freshness and earthiness, with every flavor hint simultaneously sharing the field of my taste buds. And surprise, surprise - not sweet! Even if you are not a gin lover (a good substitute would be a dry white rum), you will love this drink. And if you don't, I will help myself to your serving. Who would have thought a punch would be my favorite pal?

Just when I was getting cozy by the fire, I was transported to the waves of the ocean, with Grass Kilt, a Famous Grouse Scotch-centric infusion of green tea with coconut. If the flavors of coconut don't beckon for the beach, I don't know what does! Especially with the sweet accents of honey and cinnamon syrups, along with pineapple and lemon juices, the flavor of scotch makes a sublimely subtle debut, perfectly coddling the tea.  Think you don't like scotch? Think again! This would be the ultimate favorable introduction to this often harsh liquor because the sweet ingredients mute that potency. Mental note: sugar is the ideal scotch balance. Another example of the sweet stuff showing me how it can be optimally used. Lesson learned.

And just when I thought I had it all figured out, I was bombarded with another surprise. Only this time, it was not for the better. Fooled again by face value ingredients that got my approval on paper, I thought without question that the Prima China would get the trophy: earl grey-infused Dolin Blanc vermouth,  Siembra Azul Anejo tequila (yes please), bitters, white Creme de Cacao, and bittersweet Cynar herbal artichoke liquor. Sounding like the perfectly balanced non-sweet tequila-lover's beverage, that bubble bursted as soon as the waft of astringent old leather assaulted my nostrils.  Aggravating my tongue even further was the the acridly bitter burn that managed to persist all the way down my throat. Ashamedly, this anti-sugar advocate had her sweet tooth aching. Something was needed to balance the overpowering bitterness of this drink! Silly me, I missed all the warning signs. I especially should have been clued in by its bold brown color, clearly conveying serious business. Certainly not for the faint of heart - and I must say, I ain't no weaklin'. To this dangerous baby I give the disclaimer: Sip at your own risk.

And to flip my tongue on its axis, I was greeted (with some relief) by the floral, grassy notes of chamomile tea, infused into Old Overholt Rye whiskey. (I know, not another one!) But this one was much more manageable, albeit still not my favorite, even though I am a whiskey fan. Going by the demure name of Daisy Buchanan, Simo kept it simple by adding mildly sweet Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, Aperol bitters, and Dolin Dry vermouth. The nose was garden fresh, but a slight biting finish reminds you it ain't so simple. Another keep-you-on-your-toes twist. Similarly, the Morfeo also showcased the same chamomile-infused whiskey, but more favorably boasted honey syrup, lemon juice, Galliano L'Autentico anise liqueur (another surprise) and lovely bubbly. The Champagne and whiskey combination proved to be a winning one, and the fluctuating notes of citrus, licorice (of which I am normally not a fan) and pungent vanilla had me revisiting this cocktail many times over. Second prize to the aforementioned spiced punch favorite, I would be moved to pour this potion in a flute and serve it for brunch. Whiskey with breakfast; now there's an idea.

And speaking of the devil, a scarlet-glow tea allowed me to revisit punch. This hibiscus and elderflower tea was infused into Peruvian Macchu Pisco (an un-aged Brandy from the sweet moscatel grape) to create a more typically fruity Valley of Kings Punch, thanks to the sugar cubes, grapefruit, lime and pineapple juices tossed into the punch bowl. Although unlike a typical punch, this one had a backdrop of musky roundness, its source hard to pinpoint. Another curve-ball only a mixologist could pitch. Topped with Champagne, this effervescently pink pour was punch incarnate.

Never before has my tongue been taken for such a ride - a roller coaster of twists and turns via the inconspicuous vehicle of tea. Thank you Joaquin Simo for truly knowing your trade, showcasing different liquors to undiscovered potentials. And never have I wanted my own home bar more than when I left this tasting. (Good or bad thing? I don't know.) Ah, the power of a seasoned and savvy mixologist, to inspire me to embark upon my own mission: building my liquor collection. But until then, next stop: Death & Company.