As the morning daypart lifts off and craft cocktails surge, it was only a matter of time before restaurants and bartenders started putting the essence of the two trends into one glass. Enter tea- and coffee-based cocktails.
“To have something as complex, delicious, and familiar as coffee and tea, it’s kind of crazy that it wasn’t the rage all along,” says Skye LaTorre, beverage director for the New York City chain the Meatball Shop. The restaurant uses cold-brewed coffee to blend libations like the Buzzed Lebowski, which is a modified White Russian, and the Cajun Iced Coffee with tequila, citrus liqueur, and sweet milk.
The simple, age-old bases of tea and coffee offer a lot for restaurants to play around with, from different types of tea to varied roasts of coffee. In addition to a vast array of flavor profiles, tea can be customized by how it is prepared. For mixing with juices or a mulled wine, one can brew a more concentrated tea, says Joe McKinnon, national tea trainer and foodservice marketing coordinator for Numi Organic Tea. For a mate-infused vermouth (mate being a South American, caffeine-rich beverage) or other spirit infusion, tea can be steeped in the liquor for four to six hours.
“Right now, especially in fine dining and even in quick-service to an extent, I would say tea is starting to be elevated,” McKinnon says. He sees an increased preference for premium teas. “Everybody is focused on tea and trying to bump it up to where coffee is.”
Familiarity with tea-based cocktails is strong. According to a study by Datassential, 70 percent of Americans are aware of tea-based libations, which outpace other trends, including bitters and artisan cider.
Tea-based cocktails aren’t necessarily new, says Chris Mitchell, chef/owner of BFB Highline in New York City’s Meatpacking District. “Bourbon iced teas are something that have been consumed in the South for eons,” he says, although he notes the combinations are becoming increasingly inventive. “The average consumer’s palate has gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last three to four years.”
Six months ago, Chef Mitchell began experimenting with tea-based cocktails. He now concocts two to three new tea libations each week. One menu staple, Lowered Inhibitions, pairs smoky mezcal with Owl’s Brew Coco-Lada, a concentrated black tea with coconut, chai spices, pineapple juice, and agave.
“With the farm-to-table movement, people have been wanting all-natural, fresh ingredients,” Chef Mitchell says of the explosion of tea-based libations. “I think it offers a wide variety of possibilities in terms of cocktails.”