The Secret to Smoky Cocktails? Lapsang Souchong Tea

From balsamic vinegar to miso syrup, bartenders have long looked to the kitchen for inspiration beyond the typical trappings of the backbar. Teas, which can instantly add body and complexity to a drink, are no exception.

A quick glance at contemporary cocktail menus reveals that one tea in particular has captivated the bartender’s imagination: Lapsang souchong. The smoky, piney black tea, which comes from China’s Fujian province, gets its unique taste during the production process. After the tea leaves are picked, they’re smoke-dried over a pinewood fire to absorb the aroma, making a versatile ingredient that can enhance—or even replace—spirits in a variety of cocktails.

When David Naylor, now bar manager at La Ruina in San Antonio, worked at the speakeasy The Modernist (also in San Antonio), he created a concentrate by triple-steeping Lapsang souchong and mixing it directly into drinks, using the tea to bring a smoked quality to whiskey and gin cocktails, or to amplify the inherent smokiness in certain mezcal and Scotch bottlings. He often floats the tea concentrate on the top of the drink, as in the Humo y Oro, a bright and herbal agave-based cocktail balanced by the smoky finish. 

The tea shines in classic templates, too. At Young Joni in Minneapolis, general manager Brandon Sass uses Lapsang souchong as a main component in his Penicillin riff, the Rubber Soul, to complement the tequila’s earthy flavor.

For nonalcoholic cocktails, Lapsang souchong can act as an effective base in lieu of traditional spirits. Death & Co.’s booze-free mezcal Negroni (called the Moneyball), for instance, leans on the tea in place of the expected agave spirit, while St. Agrestis’ Phony Negroni subs in for Campari. CJ Catalano, director of beverage operations at MM Club in Miami, uses it in zero-proof drinks, too. To layer savory flavors in his Umami Tea Service, a recipe he created for a pop-up with chef Dominique Crenn at MILA Omakase, he adds Lapsang souchong for a smoky boost to a warm shiitake mushroom base, then brightens it all with a touch of calamansi vinegar. When he wants to mute the tea’s tannins, Catalano blanches it before use.

The tea can complement a range of flavors, too. Bitter, low-proof aperitifs help carry the tea’s smoky notes forward, says Naylor. In citrusy drinks, it can round out acidity or sweetness. Chris Marshall, owner and founder of the zero-proof Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, likes to pair it with stone fruit and warm baking spices to bring a smooth, earthy element to a tart flavor profile. To start experimenting with the tea, try it in Negronis, Penicillins, tiki drinks and even hot cocktails.

“Lapsang souchong in particular is just a really fun ingredient that I don’t think we see often enough,” Catalano says. Marshall agrees. “You can dial it up or dial it down,” he notes, “and it gives you the right kind of roundness, the right kind of warmth, the right kind of smoothness that makes a good cocktail great.”

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