A glance at the calendar would indicate it’s the beginning of iced tea season. But tell that to the evil skyblob of grayness that has been lurking over the Washington area for weeks, as seemingly endless as the 2016 presidential election process.
The first dreary stretch of May, I started testing iced tea cocktails, trying to magical-drink the weather into collaborating — to “tea up” spring, if you will. Surely, I thought, that sunny season will show up any day now?
But so far it’s still been coming through like blocked pay-per-view channels, in brief and frustrating bursts of color.
I could claim to have grown up with tea, but it’s more truthful to say that, thanks to my dad’s job in the Foreign Service, I grew up around it without ever managing to pick up the habit. America is still catching up on tea, although, like the metric system, tea is a big deal almost everywhere else. In Karachi, Pakistan, where I was born, it’s masala chai, a black tea enhanced with cinnamon and cardamom. Taiwan, where my sister came along, produces delicate, complex oolongs. In Australia, our last overseas post, tea was a common quaff, but I was too busy sneaking out to drink beer.
It wasn’t until college, when I spent a year in the U.K. — where a cuppa is offered as a soothing remedy for everything including a stressful commute and a death in the family — that I drank tea at all. Even then, the main attraction was its chubby wingman: a scone smeared with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
Through cocktails, I’ve come to be an appreciator of tea. It falls right under bitters on my list of ways to add flavor without adding much alcohol or sugar. And it doesn’t always mean adding caffeine; although many true teas contain it, lots of green teas have a low caffeine content, and some of the herbal teas and fruit infusions have none at all.
(A point of definition: Although some blends travel under the “tea” name, unless they contain leaves of Camellia sinensis, they’re not technically real tea. I’m using the term “tea” slightly unscientifically here, to refer to botanical blends that you brew with hot water and aren’t coffee.)
I like how preparing teas is both similar to and different from making cocktails. Like a good drink, a good cup of tea requires precision. The proper extraction of flavors in tea is a matter of careful measurement of time and temperatures. Over-steep a finicky leaf and you can wind up with a cup of bitter, aggressively vegetal unpleasantness, barely recognizable.
But unlike cocktails, tea is made via a process that’s inherently slothy, especially when you’re chilling it afterward. As a home cocktailer, I’m not serving a bar three deep with howling patrons. But I am always trying to make drinks faster, and speed is something you cannot apply to teas: They take the time they take, and in the case of some herbal teas and infusions, the steeping may stretch beyond 10 minutes. Yet isn’t that a lovely thing in itself? We live such busy lives, and this small pause that tea creates provides an opportunity to do yoga poses, practice mindfulness or stare frantically at your cellphone while sending mental admonitions to the tea to just steep already, you no-good lazy leaves.
I’m always ashamed of my impatience when I spend time around Chantal Tseng, who either radiates calm graciousness from the core of her being or has, over many years of dealing with tipsy people, become very good at faking it. As a bartender at the Reading Room in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, Tseng has been running a weekly series of cocktail events featuring drinks inspired by various authors. Many of them involve tea, and many are ideal for our recent irritating stretch of weather, in that you can serve them cold or hot.
“Tea is something I drink every single day,” Tseng says, noting that she probably first started playing with teas when working with old punch recipes and making batch cocktails for large events. (Another benefit of tea: Along with not adding alcohol or sugar, it also doesn’t add a huge amount of expense.) She thinks of it almost like cooking: You have your base spirits, “and you can kind of imagine those flavors . . . your garlic, your celery and then you add spices” via teas and other modifiers, she says.
Black teas are generally great with darker spirits such as aged rums, bourbon and rye, Tseng says. Pu-erh “always reminds me of camping. The first time I tasted it, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. It tastes like earth, but like warm earth.” She finds that green tea and herbal teas such as chamomile often work well with gin; chamomile, she points out, is a common flavoring in vermouth.
Her e.e. cummings-inspired drink, I Love Humanity, is a seasonal flavor bridge incorporating bourbon, apple brandy and spice with roasted barley tea and lemon. The barley tea is a grain infusion that tastes like toast smells: roasty, bready, comforting at any temperature. The drink of her specifications is deliciously boozy; if you want something a little lighter and more tea-forward, increasing the amount of barley brew does no harm.
Slipstream, the coffee-to-cocktails nook on 14th Street in the District, almost always has a tea cocktail on the menu, says bar manager Chris Jakubowski. He likes how jasmine teas pair with tequila and mezcal: “The strong earthiness of agave spirits kind of grounds the Bath & Body Works aspect of jasmine tea.” In his High Tea cocktail, soft floral notes in the oolong tea balance out the richness of apple brandy.
Maybe it’s odd that my primary sense memory of tea is from my parents’ roots in the deep South, where you can’t throw a grit without hitting iced tea, most of it so sweet it’ll make your teeth itch. I remember spots where a request for unsweetened tea met with a dose of “clearly-a-Yankee” stink-eye from the waitress.
Those sweet teas were on my mind when I developed the accompanying Porchard recipe, adding other fruits of the South — specifically, bourbon and peaches. I was aiming for the kind of brew you’d want to set in a pitcher on the porch while you sip from it for hours, wearing light linen clothes and glistening in a Tennessee Williams sort of way that might bring gentleman callers to the yard, callers you’d then have to chase off lest they want to steal your pitcher of Porchard. It tastes like a Southern summer. The lemon adds a nice, fresh note, but I like the cleanness of the tea and bourbon without it, too.
As of this writing, the skies continue to mope. But surely once we all start drinking things like the Porchard, the weather has got to take the hint.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.