Tea Time at the Bar
Cynthia Gold, one of the country’s leading tea sommeliers currently working at the The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers where she oversees tea service, is hard at work on her second book, this time about tea cocktails. She’s been thinking a lot about how tea and spirits work together, getting input and recipes from a number of bartenders and exploring the way tea can add qualities otherwise lacking in drinks. Her first book, Culinary Tea, helped set the stage for the continued emergence of tea not only as a beverage but as an ingredient in main courses, desserts and cocktails. You can reach her with your ideas at [email protected].
Mix: Your book, Culinary Tea has a chapter on tea cocktails, but you've branched out and are working on a book focused entirely on tea cocktails - what's the attraction?
Cynthia Gold: Tea is a botanical that deserves to be understood and utilized both front and back of the house. It has so much potential that has only begun to be explored. That chapter in Culinary Tea was only the beginning. Tea cocktails just screamed for more attention. Not to mention that there is a wide potential audience that might not notice a "cookbook" but may notice and be inspired by a focused cocktail book. Like all ingredients, the more comfortable you are with tea, understanding what it will do for you under different circumstances, the more likely you are to turn to that ingredient and play with it. Eventually there should be no such thing as "Tea Cocktails." My hope is that tea will simply become a part of every bartender’s arsenal, something that they naturally turn to when they feel it will enhance the drink they are creating. It should never be used as a gimmick or just to add the health benefits, it should simply be used when the alteration in flavors, textures, aromatics, complexity, depth or balance is what the bartender needs to create that ideal drink.
Mix: What sort of ideas are you now seeking from bartenders?
Gold: Really, anything that they want to share with me. I’m a chef, not a bartender, so I’m sure their training, backgrounds and different focuses will take tea in some pretty exciting directions. But also, it will help to solidify its usage. As I already mentioned, tea should not be a gimmick behind the bar, it’s a beautiful and diverse botanical that deserves more attention. I’ve been really really fortunate on the caliber of bartenders that have been sharing recipes with me or have promised me recipes. Not only can tea offer exciting diversity, but when a bartender sees that someone in the field who they admire is being inspired by a particular ingredient, I think they will be more likely to give it a try themselves.
Mix: Tea now covers such a broad range of styles – white, green, black, flavored, fermented, herbal - are there some teas that naturally work better in cocktails?
Gold: I don’t think of herbal infusions as tea, so I don’t tend to play with them as much. As to true teas, they all have their potential. It is more difficult to work with the very subtle white teas, but even those have their uses behind the bar.
Mix: Do you like the way teas work as spirit infusions? Which are your favorites?
Gold: Without question. In fact, that is one of my favorite ways to use tea. It’s hard to have a favorite when they all are so much fun, but I think my current favorite right now might be green tea (Sencha or Dragonwell) and lemongrass infused into Beefeater 24. That beautiful soft and complex gin already utilizes tea in its recipe, so it’s a natural and sensual marriage. Of course, I love to use Keemun, Earl Grey, Ti Kuan Yin and too many other teas to list. I’m quite fickle!
Mix: What's the one big mistake you've found that bartenders make when working with tea?
Gold: Over infusing can bring out more tannins than you are looking for, but I haven’t yet found recipes that I consider wrong, just sometimes not what I would have looked to do. I’m not usually a big fan of using iced tea as a base and then adding alcohol but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done really well. I usually prefer the subtle complexity of tea leaves infused directly into the base alcohol or in the syrups or bitters that are added.
Mix: What's your favorite tea and alcohol drink currently?
Gold: Well, as I’ve mentioned, I can be really fickle. Often my favorites are just the ones that I’ve made more recently. For instance, I have a ‘Gimlet 24’ which is a variation on a Gimlet using Beefeater 24 infused with green tea, lemongrass and a touch of fresh basil. I really enjoy our ‘Southern Earl Grey’ which is a Champagne (or Prosecco) cocktail with a small amount of Earl Grey-infused bourbon, Grand Marnier, orange bitters and a touch of a simple syrup made with ginger and green tea. If I was answering in December, I probably would have listed ‘Tea Nog,’ which is an egg nog where the dairy base was first slowly infused with a rich full bodied black tea and spices for six hours, then strained, chilled and turned into an eggnog. We served it virgin or finished with Cognac. I’m partial to the Cognac version.