Friday, April 9, 2010

Teatime for cocktails

When Rye House opened in Manhattan late last fall, a quick glance at the drink menu gave many indications that this was a bar where cocktails were taken seriously. The list of bourbons and ryes is appropriately long, befitting the establishment’s name, and the cocktail menu is filled with the contemporary bartender’s favorite ingredients: bitters, house infusions, amaros, egg whites.

Taking prime position is the Rye House Punch, featuring chai-infused rye along with lemon, grapefruit, bitters and absinthe. It’s just another sign that tea, in all its guises—chai, black, green, white, herbal tisanes, fruit-flavored, smoked — is increasingly moving onto the cocktail-ingredient list.

It’s not a revolutionary change; Colonial-era American punch recipes, now returning to the bar scene, were traditionally built on a base of freshly brewed tea that knit together the tang of citrus, a bit of sugar and the zap of brandy and rum. Since punches started appearing on menus in the speakeasy and pre-prohibition-themed bars now springing up across the country, tea has been beckoning other bartenders as well.

Hot tea spiked with a little whiskey is as old as, well, whiskey, but until recently, hot-tea cocktails were overshadowed by winter drink menus favoring fancy, dessert-like coffee and cocoa mixers. At 508 Restaurant & Bar in Manhattan, however, bar manager Nick Freeman last winter offered such tea drinks as Blueberry Fields, with black tea, amaretto and Grand Marnier. The Norwegian Wood combines orange pekoe, dark rum and vanilla vodka, and Freeman’s Jalice features chai, bourbon and lemon juice. With 508 located on the windy Hudson River side of Manhattan, chilly guests welcome the handcrafted hot drinks.

“I enjoy the idea of working with natural flavors,” says Freeman. “I also enjoy the time spent on a drink’s construction; there’s a distinct pleasure in the steeping process and in making a proper cocktail. The enjoyment of working in a restaurant setting is [that you have] a generally more captive and appreciative audience. Experimentation with anything, including recipes, requires one to play with proportion and order.”

(Read the rest of the story below, originally published in a recent issue of Flavor and the Menu.)

Tea and Cocktails