By Richard Thomas
Tea and whiskey were meant to be brought together. Both tea and whiskey are key traditional drinks of the British Isles, so mixing them is merely the next logical step. Even the cheapest tea usually has a light enough flavor to allow the whiskey to shine, something that cannot be said of coffee, and both drinks have a warming quality treasured by tea and whiskey initiates who must brave the weather on a chilly, wet day.
I also think these two drinks were meant to be together because they are deep, personal favorites of mine. I love whiskey above all other spirits, and adore tea with the passion held only by those who detest coffee. Unsurprisingly, I took to pairing tea and whiskey with the sort of interest usually reserved by snobby gourmets for wine and cheese.
I have two standing rules about mixing tea and whiskey. Because I look at the point as enhancing the tea’s flavor with whiskey and not visa versa, I usually put one shot and no more into my one-liter teapot. The other rule is the same as my rule about cooking with whiskey: use good, but not great whiskey. The expensive stuff is wasted when used as a flavoring for something else.
Irish whiskey and Lipton Yellow Label
This is my classic starter pairing. I know tea snobs will read “Lipton Yellow Label” and roll their eyes, but this pairing has its roots in how I caught on to the idea of mixing tea and whiskey in the first place. All I have now is a dim memory of an old movie where Irish-American fishermen somewhere in New England are putting whiskey in their tea while setting out to sea, a scene that obviously calls for Irish whiskey and a cheap, basic tea like Lipton Yellow Label. I suppose if the same scene were moved to Ireland, it might be whiskey and Tetley. Inspired, I was soon having a pot of this stuff on chilly nights spent up as a horse farm night watchman or as a wee-morning hours DJ.
The signature characteristics of Irish whiskey are its lack of smoke and its sweet, candy-like flavor. Those two things mellow out the harsh nature of a cheap tea like Lipton Yellow Label, giving it some real sophistication. This pairing is also ideal for drinking on long, cold nights, since it is certainly warming and the strong caffeine of Lipton easily counters any drowsiness that might result from drinking a dram of whiskey. Some lighter tea and whiskey mixtures might put you to sleep, but this one should not.
Whiskey and Cold Green Tea
The mixture of cold or iced green tea and whiskey is a distinctly Chinese thing, and accordingly I was introduced to it by expats returning from China. Being a southerner, if my iced tea has anything in it, those things should be lemon and sugar (even though I avoid the diabetes-inducing sweet tea of the Deep South). I therefore apply the same rule as for Darjeeling (see below) and put Irish whiskey, Canadian Club, sweet bourbons or floral scotches in iced green tea. However, green tea is neutral enough that a spicy, peppery whiskey, like Johnnie Walker Red Label, works just as well. Which way to go depends on whether you want a pleasant refreshment or a jolting, invigorating one.
Bourbon and Darjeeling
I have long been of the opinion that Darjeeling mixes well with honey, which balances the astringent qualities of the tea without minimizing it. I’ve always thought milk blots out the astringency, and lemon sharpens it a bit too much. Keeping that in mind, richly sweet bourbons like Maker’s Mark and Four Roses Yellow Label are good choices for adding to a pot of Darjeeling, but avoid using bourbons that have overtly smoky or fiery flavors.
Scotch and Darjeeling
While visiting Darjeeling itself, I noticed that mixing scotch and Darjeeling was somewhat popular these. It struck me as a natural enough development for a former British colony to put scotch into the local tea product, and it worked well enough while I was there. Once I was back in the Western world, I experimented with scotch and Darjeeling for a couple of years and drew the conclusion that this combination works great with floral whiskeys, such as Grant’s. A little peat smoke is fine, but the stronger the floral and citrus is in the scotch, the better for pairing with Darjeeling. Just as with bourbon, strong smoky and spicy flavors should be avoided.
Scotch and Earl Grey
I imagine this pairing to be the better-off, British counterpart of the aforementioned Irish whiskey and tea mix. Unlike Darjeeling, Earl Grey is good with lemon, so the same rules do not apply here. Earl Grey, as a strong black tea with bergamot orange rind mixed in, already has a balance between dry astringency and floral citrus flavors. Virtually any mass market scotch can be added to this tea, since the result will is to emphasize one end of the scale or the other, although a balanced scotch enhances both.
Scotch and Gunpowder Tea
Gunpowder tea has a smoky, tannin-packed flavor. In contrast with all the aforementioned examples, this tea calls out for pairing with a peaty, smoky, full-bodied scotch. Anything else will either clash with or be covered up by the heavy flavor of the tea. Ballantine’s and Johnnie Walker Black are good choices for mixing with gunpowder tea.