From earl gray to chamomille to rooibus, there are hundreds of teas available to warm us up (or wake us up) on chilly mornings. But tea can be used for more than just a breakfast drink. Paired with a complimentary spirit, teas of all types can introduce delicious flavors and textures to a great cocktail. Learning to use tea in cocktails is a fast and easy hack to improve your cocktails at home. Let’s explore four ways to use tea to make great drinks.
Use Tea as an Ingredient
The easiest way to use tea in cocktails is just to add it to your drink. Hot Toddies are famous for using a tea base, but a bit of tea in any cocktail adds both flavor and a particular mouthfeel to the drink. If you decide to go for a black tea, you’ll add more than just the flavor or tea, you’ll add a dryness to the drink. It can taste similar to the oakiness in chardonnay or an oak-forward whiskey.
If you reach for an herbal tea, the flavors and mouthfeel will vary wildly! Mint tea, licorice tea or fennel tea add flavors of those herbs, but also coolness in the mouth. When paired with a tall iced drink, they can make it seem even more refreshing than it already tastes.
Green teas and matcha add a particular earthiness and herbaceousness to a drink. When you’re building drinks that seem overly sweet and lacking in depth – those notes can balance out the cocktail in a fun way.
In hot toddies, consider using hot tea as a replacement for hot water. In highballs, use tea to replace part or all of the soda/carbonated element. And in punches, tea can shine. Large-scale, batched cocktails are an easy way to use tea to up your cocktail game. For punches, substitutes some or all of the fruit juice or soda with freshly brewed tea of a flavor that complements the other ingredients.
There are so many kinds of tea, it’s hard to think of a spirit that doesn’t go with tea. Black teas go well with rum, whiskey, and aged spirits. Herbal teas can shine with gins and vodkas. And don’t forget green tea – its earthy notes can pair with almost any spirit in a cocktail that skews sweet.
Tea can also be used in cocktails with wine (still or sparkling). Adding a splash of herbal tea to a gorgeous spritz can build a great, drying flavor in the finish.
Use Tea-Infused Spirits in Cocktails
I love tea infusions because they are fast and easy ways to add flavor to a spirit. Teas infuse water with their flavor when you make hot tea, but with alcohol, you don’t need to warm up the spirit to make an infusion. Tea-infused spirits can be made in minutes, not days.
For black teas, the infusion can complete in as little as 10-15 minutes (and sometimes faster). Black teas add a dry note to spirits, so testing every 5 minutes or so while it’s infusing is recommended. Herbal teas can sit longer in a spirit, but can still infuse in as little as 30 minutes to an hour.
To infuse a spirit with tea, quickly dip the tea bag in hot water, then drop it in a glass jar or measuring cup with 1-2 cups of spirit in it. Taste test it every few minutes if it’s back tea or every 10-15 minutes if it’s herbal. When it reaches a potent flavor, remove the tea bag and you’re ready to use the spirit.
Infusing with vodka will give you more of the unabashed flavor of the tea than if you use a more flavorful spirit like rum, whiskey, or tequila. But infusing a spirit with a flavor already found in that alcohol can highlight those flavors in the spirit.
For example, you might choose to use mint tea to infuse an herbaceous rye or gin. Both would be delicious in a mint julep cocktail. Or you might prefer to use rose tea with a rose-forward gin or floral tequila and build it into a sour – either a gimlet or margarita riff.
One popular infusion of late is to infuse a clear spirit with butterfly pea flower. It turns the spirit a brilliant blue, and also changes color to lavender when in the presence of acid, like citrus or seltzers. It’s the same infusion that you see in Empress 1908 gin.
In the winter, I keep chai-infused bourbon or rum on hand constantly. In the spring, I lean toward lavender-infused vodka and gin, or ease into matcha infusions. And during the fall, cinnamon tea, winter spice tea, and ginger tea infusions take center stage. In the summer, fruity herbal tea infusions fill jars on my bar as an easy way to add great fruit flavors to spirits.
For more information head to this article on bourbon infusions.
Tea Syrups for Cocktails
The most common way I add tea flavors to cocktails, though, is via tea syrups. I brew a strong batch of the tea (usually doubling the amount of tea I use and increasing the steep time) and use that as the liquid to make simple syrup.
Because I generally make simple syrup in a 1:1 ratio – meaning 1 cup water to 1 cup sugar – I usually just use 1 cup of tea to 1 cup of water. Brewing the tea strong means that even in recipes where I’m only using 1/2 oz of syrup I get a boost of tea flavor.
Black tea or Earl Grey syrups are fabulous additions to an Old Fashioned, but my favorite, by far is chai tea syrup. If you’re an Old Fashioned fan, just substitute out the simple syrup for a tea syrup.
In sours with any base spirit, from whiskey to rum to gin, use a bit of tea syrup in place of the simple syrup to build a more complex and layered sour. You can even create a homemade sour mix using tea syrup in place of simple syrup.
For rum drinks like the mojito, chai, mint tea syrup or herbal tea syrups are incredible combinations to try. And if you’re a gin and tonic lover, just a splash of tea syrup added to the cocktail as you build it generates a great variation that’s easy to add at home.
Some of my favorite teas to use for infused syrups:
- chai tea
- mint tea
- rose tea
- winter spice tea
- ginger tea
- raspberry or peach tea
- green tea
- jasmine tea
Tea Ice Cubes
Of course, one of the primary components of many cocktails is the ice. Whiskey drinkers and cocktail geeks love to obsess about ice, and tea makes an inexpensive and tasty way to add flavor to your cocktails via ice.
Simply freeze your tea into ice (much like people do with coffee ice cubes) and add them to your cocktail. Either to the drink itself in place of all or some of its ice or for the ice you use in the shaker or the mixing glass as you create it.
Using the tea ice to mix or shake the cocktails adds tea directly to the cocktail while it’s being made. Up to 25% of a cocktail is water after being shaken or stirred. Replacing that water with tea can add a great deal of flavor to a cocktail and significantly change the mouthfeel and finish of a drink.
Adding tea ice cubes lets the drink evolve as it’s sipped. The melting tea gradually adds flavor to the drink with each tip. At first sip, the tea might not be evident, but in a few minutes, as the ice begins to melt and the tea integrates with the other ingredients the cocktail’s flavor, color and finish begin to change. It could turn a John Collins into an Arnold Palmer by the end of the drink!
Tea ice can also add variety in terms of color to a drink. Building a highball or tall drink in a slender glass with different colored ice makes for a striking presentation. I freeze raspberry or hibiscus tea specifically for this purpose – to add layers of color via ice to a drink.
You can even freeze it into one large cube if you’re making a cocktail that usually calls for large format ice.
Now Go Use Tea in Cocktails
The huge variety in type, flavor, and color of tea presents an incredible opportunity to create flavorful and visually stunning cocktails – in a bar or at home. Experimentation with different types of tea and their uses with different spirits and cocktail types can keep a tea lover or cocktail lover occupied for years.
Let the flavors and finish of the teas you love pair in creative ways using the methods above: tea as an ingredient, tea-infused spirits, tea syrups or sea ice. Now go get that teapot and start brewing, you’ve got cocktails to make.