I came across the phenomenon several times over the summer: people of the utmost sophistication drinking cocktails out of teacups – cocktails that, on inspection, turn out to contain tea as an ingredient. Once it was at a garden party in Oxfordshire, sponsored by Hendrick's gin. Along with the gin-fizz cocktails was a delicious number called the Wordsmith (we'd been to a literary festival), which people were drinking out of flowery teacups, like characters in a Barbara Pym novel. At a summer afternoon get-together in west London, the host served Royal-Tea cocktails, a throwback to the royal wedding in April. They featured Beefeater gin, chilled Earl Grey tea, with a squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of sugar and a garnish of lime wheels. And both were delicious, though if you had more than three, the combination of tannin and citrics made your tongue shrivel.
Next I heard about a new underground bar in the City Road in London, where the highlight of the evening was the shared tea cocktail – of which more later.
When did we start combining alcohol with tea? Coffee and brandy? Fine. Coffee with cognac? Absolutely. (In Italy, they call it a caffe corretto, or "corrected coffee".) But tea with vodka, with rum, tea with Scotch? It seemed like an abomination against nature. How can one combine English breakfast domesticity with the impulse to ladle intoxicants down one's throat?
"It goes back to Prohibition," said my know-all friend, Alison. "Remember the opening scene in Some Like It Hot, when the undercover cop in a speakeasy asks for tea? The waiter says: 'Sorry, sir, we only serve coffee... Scotch coffee, Canadian coffee, sour mash coffee.' Long Island Iced Tea got its name from that era."
Was it true? According to Wikipedia, the cocktail is a "highball" made of equal parts vodka, gin, tequila and rum, plus triple sec and a splash of cola, but contains no tea. It was originally mixed in the Oak Beach Inn, on New York's Long Island, by a bartender called Robert "Rosebud" Butts.
I prefer the Prohibition story. But a cursory history of British comfort drinking reveals that the classic "hot toddy", with which snuffling Brits have for centuries fought the symptoms of head colds, traditionally featured black tea along with whisky, cloves, honey, lemon and cinnamon. A poem from 1721, The Morning Interview, by Allan Ramsay, explains where the constituents of a tea party come from. "All the rich requisites are brought from far: the table from Japan, the tea from China, the sugar from Amazonia or the West Indies. While Scotland...
"Scotia does no such costly tribute bring,
Only some kettles full of Todian spring."
Todian spring, named after Tod's Well in Edinburgh, is a coded reference to whisky, "the water of life".
It just shows that, long before Manhattan's drinking classes started with the bourbon teapots, we'd been combining Assam tips and orange pekoe with Aquavit and Old Peculier.
Now, in the 2010s, tea cocktails are popping up all over the place. I discovered a delicious oolong mojito recipe from Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company, that involved rum, chilled oolong tea, mint, sugar and lime juice. Ernest Hemingway, the great mojito connoisseur, would probably have turned his manly nose up at such a nancy-boy concoction, but it works. A tea-expert blog called veetea.com came up, three years ago, with a recipe for Kashmiri masala chai with gin, which starts with the grinding of almonds, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and saffron threads in a pestle and mortar, and ends with the pouring of slugs of gin into 8oz teacups.
The most serious modern attempt to fuse the worlds of grain and tea leaf, however, took place in Paris last month, when Hennessy, the cognac distiller, announced its commercial marriage with the Theodor tea company. In an event at the Perrotin art gallery, two men explained the marriage of tastes over which they were presiding.
Yann Fillioux, master blender at Hennessy, is the seventh generation of his family to be responsible for ageing and blending double-distilled eaux de vie to make the celebrated cognac. (I must admit to having had a soft spot for the old firm ever since I was shown a letter in the first-ever Hennessy ledger, demanding payment from an 18th-century ancestor of mine, with expensive tastes in booze but limited resources; how little life changes down the centuries.) Guillaume Leleu is the founder of the Theodor brand, which opened in Paris in 2002 without advertising or press fanfare. In just six years, it exported tea to 30 countries and has become a byword in tea production. M. Leleu is the kind of chap who airily combines Chinese green tea with Ceylonese black, or pimps black Assam tea by adding essence of peach with a hint of chilli.
There were elegant speeches from both men, expatiating in a very French way on the "enigmatic sensory world" of tea, the "shared values and origins" between tea and cognac ("in cultures where land matters, it doesn't matter if you are growing tea or grapes") and the gallantry of cognac in bringing out the best in its shy, innocent partner. Yann Fillioux said his company had been "shipping sizeable quantities of cognac to Asia since the 19th century", and had found that people drink the stuff at teatime all over that continent. Guillaume Leleu said he liked the idea of "combining the world of tea with other vocabularies, so that it realises its true potential and is at one with its time", and had chosen an Earl Grey and a Chinese green tea, "which boasted very different notes, composition and Père Labat Agricole criteria", but got on best with Fine de Cognac.
Behind the fine words were four new cocktails, one for each season. One called Autumn is the marriage of fine cognac with Je Ne Sais Quoi tea (it's Chinese, with a touch of Madagascar vanilla) plus apple liqueur, golden syrup, egg white and aromatic bitters. Another, Winter, brings together Earl Grey, cognac, cherry liqueur, cherries and cranberry juice. And Spring offers an optimistic burst of mint and fresh-cut grass (keynotes of the On Va Se Revoir tea) with a touch of golden syrup and ginger; while Summer is a very fruity number, the Pêche Mignon green tea laced with peach, melon and strawberry, plus more syrup, lemon juice and egg white in the glass.
Very delicious they all were, as we whiled away the Paris afternoon, with a distinct leaning towards Autumn as the most fulfilling blend of flavours. You can look for the new drinks in cocktail bars all over Europe, possibly served in the lovely glass teacups from which we tried them. Then, when I returned to London, I discovered a new breed of cocktail bar, for which the tea decoction is perfect.
Purl bar and the Worship Street Whistling Shop, both in London, are both owned by Fluid Movement, a "collective" of mixologists who invent brand new cocktails, infusions and bitters using a whole battery of new-fangled techniques: foams, fog, liquid nitrogen, home-made caviar... Purl combines the elegant underworld atmosphere of a 1929 speakeasy with the boffin sophistication of Heston Blumenthal's laboratory, while the Whistling Shop is a reclamation of the Victorian gin palaces of the 1850s; both are amazingly cool. One of the most popular drinks at Purl is Mr Hyde's Fixer Upper, featuring Ron Zacapa rum, home-made cola syrup, chocolate bitters and orange bitters, stirred, poured into a potion bottle and smoked with applewood chippings, before being presented in a wine cooler with a lapsang souchong tea fog.
"Tea has a unique complexity of flavours, just as spirits do," says Tom Aske, director of Fluid Movement. "Each different blend lends a different expression, so the amount of potential flavour matches is staggering. An Earl Grey with its bergamot notes is a perfect fit for a gin like Tanqueray, while lapsang souchong gives a hint of smoke to a rich, chocolate-heavy rum like Zacapa."
What's a tea fog? "We use dry ice – solid carbon dioxide – and, by pouring different liquids over the dry ice, we create a fog or visible aroma that carries the liquid's scent," Aske says. "Pouring a strongly brewed lapsang tea over dry ice creates a visible plume of fog that smells of bonfire smoke."
So there. And while you're checking them out, you should investigate the Nightjar, located in a subterranean cellar behind a super-discreet frontage near Old Street roundabout in east London. There's live jazz on Thursdays and Saturdays, all punters are seated at tables, where you must try the epic Ti Punch: one slug of Hendrick's gin, one of Père Labat Agricole rum, Nightjar chai mix, lime, cucumber and cinnamon. This wondrous concoction is served in a big teapot seething with clouds of dry ice. It pours out enough for five drinkers, and costs £40. Shall I be mother?