Local bars finding tea adds complexities to cocktails
When beverage director Patrick Williams wants to balance out the sweet and sour flavors in Punch Bowl Social's namesake drinks, he sometimes turns to tea.
"We love using tea because it's got so many fresh flavors," Williams said. "Tea has a really good value in adding texture to punch."
You can taste the effect in four of the drinks available at the bar's Schaumburg location, including the Beet's Me, a single-serving drink that blends white pear Fuji apple tea with Old Forester bourbon, beet syrup and lemon juice.
"(The tea) adds this cool fruit note to a complex drink," Williams said. "Its tannin properties help balance a drink that might, on the surface, be kind of tart and sweet. You taste citrus juice, you kind of pucker up. Tea has a little bit of dryness that helps balance out those flavors."
Punch Bowl Social is one of an increasing number of local bars that have been experimenting with incorporating tea onto their cocktail menus. Last fall, Rack House Kitchen & Tavern added the Peach Cooler to its drink menu, and the blend of Fireball whiskey, peach moonshine, iced tea and lemonade became their top seller.
"It really turns out nice," said owner Luke Johnson. "You get a little spiciness and then the smooth and the sweet from the iced tea and lemonade."
The drink was inspired in part by the Arnold Palmer, a nonalcoholic blend of iced tea and lemonade that's in heavy demand during the restaurant's busy lunches. They use the same fresh brewed tea in the cocktail that they serve in an iced tea, giving it plenty of flavor.
The quality of the tea is also important at Punch Bowl, which has been partnering with Denver-based tea supplier Teakoe for five years. Their product is designed for iced tea, which means it has a concentrated flavor that stands up to being mixed into a drink.
"It really was a solidifying piece in our cocktail menu to have them to depend on," Williams said. "I spent a better half of a day at the Teakoe facility smelling teas and thinking of flavor combinations. I think of the tea first, and then build a cocktail around that."
One recent example is the bar's Watermelon Polo punch, which launched this week. The drink blends El Jimador reposado tequila, watermelon spearmint tea, strawberry syrup, lime juice and watermelon shrub made by blending the fruit with apple cider vinegar.
"Watermelon's not a very strong flavor so they incorporated spearmint to add a complex note like you're biting into the rind," Williams said. "It's a really cool combination of watermelon flavors. We have two dimensions with the tea and the shrub."
The Tea Bag has been on the menu at The Saddle Room in Hoffman Estates since they opened in 2012. Made with Firefly sweet tea vodka, Stoli Citros, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup and fresh-brewed tea, the drink comes in the form of a bag of English breakfast tea that's shaken with the drink.
"It's one of those drinks you want to drink on the patio," said general manager Kristopher Gillis. "It's very light and nice. As (the tea bag) sits and macerates with the drink, it gets more and more tea flavor. It adds a more traditional tea flavor than iced tea out of a fountain gun. It also adds to the aroma of the drink, which is really nice."
While the drink is already popular, the bar is looking to improve it by switching out Firefly for Deep Eddy sweet tea vodka, which Gillis said has a stronger tea flavor. Sibling spot The Turf Room in North Aurora has already made the change and The Saddle Room plans to follow suit in the next two weeks.
Gillis said he sees tea drinks as another way to appeal to more educated drinkers.
"I think people are looking for interesting things in their cocktails," he said. "They're looking to go back to classic cocktails that aren't super sweet and don't involve four types of schnapps."