Are teas the new cocktails?

Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar is revamping the image of loose-leaf brews.
Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar is revamping the image of loose-leaf brews. Photo: Madeye Photography

The stereotype that tea is the drink of choice for grandmothers everywhere is getting a reboot, thanks to the inventive way that brew​s are being used to amp up beverages.

In fact, tea is proving to be as versatile as booze - and is now being offered like wine or cocktails at Sydney establishments. 

Corinne Smith, co-founder of the Sydney Tea Festival and co-owner of The Rabbit Hole Organic Tear Bar in Redfern and Barangaroo, has been a cheerleader for this trend.

The original Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar in Redfern.
The original Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar in Redfern. Photo: James Alcock

"For us, there's so much more to tea than just a 'hot brew in a mug' ... We want to showcase tea in ways that are innovative, exciting and downright sexy," she says. "We love demonstrating that through our tea mocktails and tea shots, as well as the other beverages on our menu. It really elevates tea to something worthy of attention and not just something you're forced to drink when you drop over to your Nan's place!"

So despite having cafe-style offerings (brunches, hot drinks and sandwiches) at her Rabbit Hole venues, Smith thinks her establishments are more like bars. After all, they've served drinks such as green apple and sencha sours, minty Marrakesh Caipiroska, and a jasmine and lychee 'Teajito'; plus, she's constantly thinking about new inventions and how to garnish them like a cocktail - even if they're non-alcoholic beverages. 

"Many of our drinks are served in barware, for example. Our mocktails are served in hurricane glasses, and martini glasses make an appearance on the specials menu from time to time, too," she says. "Our premium Steampunk tea service is even decanted into a wine glass for your drinking pleasure." 

Bentley Restaurant and Bar is known for its inventive non-alcoholic drinks.
Bentley Restaurant and Bar is known for its inventive non-alcoholic drinks. Photo: Christopher Pearce

She thinks it's easy to switch out alcohol with any tea in a cocktail - which is a handy trick you can try at home. 

"It comes down to working out complementary flavours," says Smith.

For a whisky-based drink, try a naturally smoky tea instead of booze (like gunpowder green tea or lapsang Souchong). To evoke the botanical flavours of gin, use a herbal tisane. For a fruity beverage, like the raspberry-dominant Chambord, you could opt for something like Rabbit Hole's Berry Bomb (which is a black tea with real raspberries and blueberries).

Tea's reinvention means it's no longer just a post-dinner afterthought at high-end restaurants. Melbourne's Vue de Monde has a tea sommelier and Sydney's Bentley Restaurant and Bar is following this trend, too. 

The interiors at Bentley, which is a two-hat restaurant.
The interiors at Bentley, which is a two-hat restaurant. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

"When I noticed that restaurants like Eleven Madison [Park] in New York were beginning to pair their menu with tea, I decided to pursue a course as a tea sommelier," says Bentley's Marelius Moen.

While the health benefits of tea have been well-spruiked (such as matcha's incredibly high antioxidant levels), its unexpected selling point is that it's actually a lot like wine. 

"Tea is a product that is primarily hand-harvested and each varietal has a specific terroir and flavour," he says. "Like a mixologist needs skills to create delicious cocktails, you also need knowledge of terroir and temperature along with the skills to brew each varietal of tea."

Tea infusions are used both in cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks at Bentley. The El Verde is built around a strong green tea and has a simple recipe that any amateur bartender can recreate at home.

Bentley's El Verde is a green-tea-based mocktail.
Bentley's El Verde is a green-tea-based mocktail. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Bentley's tea-based drinks can also be quite experimental. There's a Cherry Varenya mocktail that's currently paired with the roasted Jerusalem artichoke, pickled shimeji and hay oil on the restaurant's vegan degustation menu. "We are drawing on the traditional Cherry Varenya (a sweet Russian tea), but we infuse tea with cherries and then season with olive brine and pickled onion," says Moen.

Moen thinks changing attitudes about customising tea ties in with the rise of hand-harvested beers and boutique coffee roasting.

Smith believes its hangover-free qualities are a big part of the appeal, too.

"I think for a long time Australia has had a very passionate love affair with alcohol. Many are now on the hunt for a new mistress who doesn't make them feel quite so bad the next day," she says. "Tea is a perfect alternative as it can effortlessly fill the alcohol void, has the added boost of actually being good for you and, if you do happen to be with a crowd of drinkers, can easily masquerade as a cocktail - so you can avoid all the questioning around why you're not drinking.

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