How to turn tea into nonalcoholic cocktails with deep, complex flavors

The nonalcoholic Zero Proof Basil-Matcha Fizz takes advantage of matcha’s grassiness and subtle bitterness.
The nonalcoholic Zero Proof Basil-Matcha Fizz takes advantage of matcha’s grassiness and subtle bitterness. (Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Walk into a fine-dining restaurant, flip to the chef’s tasting menu and you often will find wine pairings available. If alcohol-free beverage options are on offer — they should be, if the restaurant wants to stay relevant — they will probably involve tea.

This was the case at the now-closed Charleston restaurant McCrady’s, when, in spring 2018, a steaming cup of Lapsang souchong arrived in front of me, a fittingly smoky companion to seared duck breast. Its intoxicating aroma seduced the man dining to my left into skipping his wine selection in favor of the tea.

His choice makes good sense when you consider that, like wine, tea expresses terroir and, like wine, there are many varieties of tea. Even among common black teas, there is intriguing diversity. High-elevation regions in Sri Lanka produce brisk Ceylon, for example, while Keemun teas from northern China are rich, chocolaty and weighty on the palate. Look at the other tea categories (green, oolong, white), and you’ve got a dizzying array of distinctive flavors — and that’s before you think about fermented teas.

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The point is, when selected carefully, tea can do similar work to wine, without the alcohol.

Of course, people around the world have drank tea with food for centuries. More recently, though, tea’s structure and complexity have made it a key player in alcohol-free mixology. Not only can the choice of tea drive nonalcoholic cocktails in various directions, but playing with steeping times can yield varied refreshing results: Bartenders can go longer to extract bitterness from black teas, or lightly brew green teas for ethereal, pretty flavors, for example.

Today, you can buy plenty of alcohol-free spirits, wines and aperitifs, some of which are well worth the $30 and up price tags. The best — such as Three Spirit’s Blurred Vines wine alternatives — tend to come from makers who have caught onto tea’s ability to add nuance and depth.

Alas, not all products are as carefully constructed as Blurred Vines, so buying 750 milliliters of one of these alcohol-free bottles can be a gamble, and, depending on where you live, you may have to pay for costly shipping.

What, by contrast, is available at your local grocery store? Many kinds of tea you can manipulate to your tastes.

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All tea comes from the same species of plant, Camellia sinensis, and its clonal variations. This means that chamomile, buckwheat and hibiscus teas, among others, are tisanes — and it’s important to note that, unlike true teas, they don’t normally contain tannins (explained below) or caffeine. (No caffeine could be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for in your drink.) A catchall term that’s also correct is “infusion.” For the purposes of this piece, though, let’s call all botanical infusions “tea.”

Here are tips for how to start using tea (including infusions) to make complex, thoughtful, nonalcoholic drinks at home — no fancy equipment or special skills required.

If you’re not an aficionado, don’t worry about committing the tea types to memory just yet. “Pick your favorite,” says Robert Wemischner, author of “Cooking with Tea.” “That’s the starting point.” Once you’ve chosen a tea, taste it on its own, then try it with another ingredient. Some combinations to get your wheels turning: Keemun black tea blended with pureed cantaloupe, a Darjeeling oolong blend combined with peach juice, or matcha with coconut milk.

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White teas are likely too subtle for blending, but Javelle Taft, head bartender at Death & Co. in New York, offers guidance and a few flavor combinations to consider for black, green and oolong.

Black: Their robust flavor and texture shine through even when mixed with multiple ingredients. In autumn, Taft infuses black teas with chai spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice and cardamom. He strains the spiced liquid into a mug and adds hot or cold apple cider, with an orange twist for garnish.

Green: Most are delicate and should be brewed with care, Taft says, but hojicha is one of his favorites because the leaves are roasted over high heat, “giving it a barley-like, full-bodied flavor profile.” He recommends steeping 6 ounces of hot water with 1/2 teaspoon of hojicha for 3 minutes before straining and chilling the liquid. Then, he likes to combine that tea with Roots Divino Bianco, a nonalcoholic white vermouth infused with rosemary and thyme, for a martini-style drink, with a lemon twist.

Oolong: “Oolong teas remind me of amontillado sherries because of their amber color and nutty finish,” Taft says. “They’re marzipan-like with roasted plums” and pair well with stone fruit. For a warm drink, he mixes the tea with a ginger-sugar syrup and pomegranate juice, serving it with a citrus twist.

Choose high-quality tea and water

Along with being more environmentally friendly (less packaging), high-quality loose leaf tea makes it easier to control ratios and results in complex flavors.

When brewing tea, use filtered water for the best results. Hard water, high in calcium and magnesium, as well as soft water, can negatively affect flavor and clarity — but if going straight from the tap is easiest, that’s fine.

Make this cocktail: Zero Proof Basil-Matcha Fizz

Brewing tea hot or cold produces different results, so keep that in mind when you’re making tea-infused cocktails.

Brew it hot for briskness: If you’re looking for speed or mouthfeel, heat is the key. The speed part is fairly obvious: Tea brews faster in hot water. Wemischner says green teas favor water between 160 and 170 degrees; oolongs, between 170 and 180 degrees; and black teas 212 degrees. Because optimal temperature and ratio vary from tea to tea, follow the instructions on the packaging. Just remember to let the tea cool before mixing it with other ingredients — unless, of course, you’re ultimately making a warm drink.

When it comes to mouthfeel, the dry, puckery, astringent, tactile sensation you get from drinking some teas comes from their tannins, phenolic compounds also found in wine, the skins of nuts and unripe fruits. Mixing equal parts hot-brewed Lapsang souchong, a smoky black tea and tart cherry juice, for example, will get you a bracing nightcap worthy of a snifter.

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Otherwise, brew it cold: While hot water coaxes tannins out of tea leaves more effectively than cold water, you run the risk of extracting too much and ending up with a harsh liquid. If you have the time and are making a chilled cocktail with a tea base, Wemischner recommends cold-brewing to get the best flavor.

Combine your tea with cold water and let it sit for 24 hours in the refrigerator before straining. “Roundness and sweetness of flavor result from cold-brewing for this amount of time if the proportions are 1 to 2 ounces of tea per 32 ounces of cold, good-quality water,” Wemischner says.

Make syrups vehicles for flavor

If you want to flavor your drink with tea without adding much volume, an infused syrup is the way to go. The basic formula is the same as a simple syrup made with equal parts granulated sugar and water, but in this case, your water is steeped tea.

While certain stronger tea leaves might be able to handle being simmered in the syrup, the safest bet is too steep leaves in just-boiled water, strain and then mix in the sugar. If the tea has cooled to the point that the sugar won’t dissolve, gently reheat the mixture on the stovetop after straining, stirring until you can no longer see any granules.

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For teas in powdered form, such as the matcha in the Zero Proof Basil-Matcha Fizz above, you can avoid the stovetop altogether and put all of the ingredients in a blender, processing until the sugar dissolves.

As for the amount of tea to use in the syrup, you can vary it depending on the tea and whether you’re looking for gentle or assertive flavors; but a good rule of thumb is 1 tablespoon of tea leaves per cup each of sugar and water. Finally, keep in mind that syrups stored in a container with a tightfitting top stay good for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, as opposed to brewed tea, which loses its character in one to two days.

Once you’re comfortable brewing and mixing drinks with your favorite teas, the door is open to experimentation. Curious what might work well with tart, fuchsia-colored hibiscus? What about with punchy hojicha? Or earthy, fermented pu-erh?

“Get a single-origin tea, make it and eat something with it,” says Piper Kristensen, beverage director at Oxalis and Places des Fêtes in Brooklyn. That’s how he settled on nutty toasted buckwheat tea as a contrasting companion for an early-summer strawberry spritz. “You just need to drink more tea!”

Bainbridge is the author of “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason” (Ten Speed Press, 2020).

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