In Southern California where I live, as winter arrives, it is usually nothing but an affectation to light up the fireplace. One of LA’s grand old hotels – the Hotel Bel Air, currently closed for extensive remodeling – kept theirs lit all year round, whether the weather outside was frightening or not. By the way, I’ve enjoyed many a good afternoon tea there, so stay tuned for its reopening mid-2011. Notwithstanding the fact that sunny Christmas days with palm trees swaying against a cerulean sky somehow just don’t seem right, rumor has it that Irving Berlin penned “White Christmas” while living in Beverly Hills not far from the hearth-loving hotel. For me, at any rate, the warmth and glow that come from sitting in front of your hearth, whatever the weather, seem to call for one more element – a comforting elixir based on tea and some well-aged alcohol. Port, sherry, Madeira, rum, scotch, and even bourbon come to mind as some of my favorite partners to the leaf.
But not all spiked tea drinks are created equal. Black teas from India and China, such as Assam and Keemun, respectively, seem to stand up well to fortified alcohols like port, sherry, and Madeira. Brew a large mugful’s worth of tea to normal drinking strength (10-12 ounces is my cup’s capacity). Then allow it to cool to room temperature. It’s best not to refrigerate, as much of the bold and freshly brewed character of the tea will be blunted, particularly in the presence of the booze. Acknowledging the subjectivity of taste for alcohol, I offer the following guideline, preferring to use a light hand with the hard stuff. Mix anywhere from ½ to 1 ounce of any of the above alcohols, per your choice, into the brewed black tea. When you have no pressing business to attend to, feel free to experiment by mixing and matching a few teas with a few spirits until you hit the right combination. Fruitier, rounder teas tend to harmonize well with tawny port, Madeira, and sweeter sherries. The harder stuff – scotch and bourbon – pair better with smoky Lapsang Souchong and even pu-erh.
As an added touch, I like to float a thin slice of seasonal citrus or the peel (seek out floral Meyer lemon or Oro blanco non-acidic white grapefruit) atop the drink for added fragrance and complexity of flavor. Getting even more elaborate, you can heat the citrus peel by applying a match to it over the drink to release more of its aromatic compounds, adding a bit of drama to the proceedings.
Beyond the above alcohols, rum seems to be the comeback kid and it makes a fitting partner to chai, the spiced tea of India. For the adult and hot version, I like to bring 4 whole star anise, 2 cinnamon sticks, a ½ ounce of fresh ginger root, and 12 black peppercorns to a boil with 12 ounces of water, sweetened to taste with honey. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes and, once fragrant and boldly spice-flavored, sieve out the solids. Then add some whole tea leaves from the Nilgiri region of southern India (approximately 4 to 6 grams per 12 ounces of the spiced liquid) and bring to just below the boil. Remove from the heat and infuse for about 3 minutes and then decant the liquid, discarding the spent leaves. Add an equal part of steamed creamy foamed milk and a teaspoon of Haitian Barbancourt rum and pour the mixture into your favorite mug. Garnish with a long cinnamon stick and stir. Inhaling this is almost as much fun as drinking it.
Whether tea lessens the effects of alcohol is anyone’s guess, but once again, tea proves itself to be a drink for all seasons and climes.