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When Tea Meets Alcohol: A Fascinating Combination

Combining tea with alcoholic beverages is not a modern idea, but the form that this combination takes has evolved and matured over time

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(Taiwan Panorama photo)

(Taiwan Panorama photo)

Alcoholic beverages and tea are both popular cross-cultural drinks. However, in contrast to the only recent rise of the private-sector beer, wine, and liquor industry in Taiwan following the abolition of the alcohol and tobacco monopoly system upon our accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002, tea, of which Taiwan is a major producer, has long been loved by Taiwanese.

In the wake of the rapid rise of the alcoholic beverage industry, much meticulous attention has been devoted to the exploration of tastes, the manifestation of Taiwan’s terroir and cultural environment, and brewing and distilling technology. From brewing and distilling to mixology to connoisseurship, many people in the world of beer, wine, and liquor are drawing lessons from the realm of tea. Indeed, some have gone so far as to combine the two, hoping to thereby produce a vocabulary of alcoholic beverages unique to Taiwan.

From groupings as small as families to ones as large as nations, dietary culture is linked to history and is stored in collective memories. Tea is an important element that threads through the history of Taiwan.

In 1869, Scottish merchant John Dodd and Dadao­cheng-­based businessman Li Chunsheng exported “Formosa Oolong Tea” from Tamsui to New York, launching the rise to prominence of Taiwan tea.

When Tea Meets Alcohol: A Fascinating Combination
Laura Lu (Taiwan Panorama photo)

The story of Taiwan through tea

Her grandfather handled procurement for the Government-­General of Taiwan in the era of Japanese rule. Her mother, a child of a prominent local family, was born at Wangyangju, a historic house in New Taipei City’s Yingge District. Stories like these from long ago laid the foundations for Laura Lu’s deep emotional attachment to Taiwan, and she says: “I’ve always wanted to help more people learn about Taiwan.”

Many years ago, she happened upon two teas that are hard to find in the market: premium quality Oriental Beauty tea produced in Hsinchu County’s Beipu ­Township, and Assam tea from the Sun Moon Lake area of Nantou County, which back in the day was presented to the Japanese emperor for his personal consumption. Lu, who has always enjoyed tea, got the sudden inspiration to use Taiwan tea to draw more people’s attention to Taiwan, and to this end she founded “Le Vert thé.”

Only 12 teas are sold under this brand name, but they are hand-picked one-tip two-leaf teas of high-­quality varieties and are presented with boutique-level packaging design. More than a decade ago, at a time when little attention was paid to tea packaging, Le Vert thé quickly became well-known in local markets for its eye-­catching image.

To date its products have been sold in over 60 countries and are often given as gifts by diplomats to foreign dignitaries. Personages from the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto to members of the French parliament to officials at the World Trade Organization have received Le Vert thé tea.

However, when Taiwanese drink Taiwan tea, they mainly do so in its pure form, emphasizing its natural flavor and clear fragrance and consuming unblended teas. This is quite different from the custom in the West of adding sugar and milk (as for English-style milk tea) or drinking blended teas (such as breakfast tea or Earl Grey).

What could Lu do to get more foreigners to learn about Taiwan tea? A lover of the novel and innovative, she turned to alcoholic beverages to open up new possibilities. She worked with the W Hotel in Taipei’s Xinyi District to promote options combining tea with alcoholic beverages.

In the bar on the hotel’s 31st floor, bartenders brewed tea on the spot and mixed it into cocktails, which they served with Chinese-style foods and drinks, and this proved to be very popular with foreigners. Originally planned to be only a short-term activity of three to six months, this project lasted for three years.

Lu has retained this inspiration, and later she brought her products to the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL) to propose a joint project. “My grandfather formerly had two offices on Bo’ai Road, so perhaps he worked right here?” was a thought that flashed through her mind. She and TTL subsequently agreed to launch a series of tea–alcohol mixed drinks called “ThéJà Vu.”

Taiwan in the age of mixed drinks

Today the beverage market is in an era of mixing, blending, and experimentation. This is especially marked for mixed alcoholic drinks, also known as cocktails. From the recombination of traditional cocktails (distilled spirits blended with non-­alcoholic beverages and ingredients) to the recent emergence of completely alcohol-free “mocktails” made with tea or fruit juice, mixologists have been showing off their personal creativity while also drawing attention to the culture and history behind their drinks.

In an age when people are encouraged to “think globally, act locally,” Taiwan tea has become the top choice for local mixologists to convey something unique about Taiwan.

Adding tea to alcoholic beverages naturally gives the resulting drinks a “Taiwanese-ness” and resonates with the trend in the food and beverage market to emphasize local products. But there is another advantage to this mixture that has been noted by culinary writer Yeh Yilan in an essay entitled “A New Era for Blended Drinks”:

“Because tea has a charm produced by its inherent slightly bitter flavor and tannins, when used in blended drinks it can create a rich texture and complex layers that are in no way inferior to alcoholic beverages. Teas in particular have a naturally broad compatibility. Moreover, the complex lineages of green and black teas from different production areas enhance their appeal.”

When Tea Meets Alcohol: A Fascinating Combination
Aki Wang (left), who has been a mixologist for nearly 30 years, has founded a laboratory to turn his professional experience into quantified scientific data. (Taiwan Panorama photo)

The Five Elements

In particular, foreigners and especially visitors from Europe and the Americas will feel a greater sense of identification with mixed tea–alcohol drinks as compared to tea served directly.

The Indulge Experimental Bistro, which has been listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Bars and cited by the Michelin Guide, was founded by Aki Wang, who has been called “the godfather of cocktails among ethnic Chinese.” He talked to us about his reasons for bringing Taiwan tea into the world of alcoholic beverages.

Wang, an experienced bartender who started in the business at age 16, worked in international locations including Tokyo, New York, and London, then spent a great deal of time learning about Taiwan tea, before finally returning to work in his original profession of mixology. He has high standards for the alcoholic drinks he composes.

He admits that mixology is not that difficult, and that all cocktails are based on a combination of sour and sweet. However, one cannot have only sour and sweet to make a good mixed drink—the ingredients have to have a certain logic, and have a story or cultural background to them. Blending in elements of Taiwan tea is a good way to give a distinctly Taiwanese character to the art of cocktails, which originated in the West.

However, most teas have elegant, delicate flavors, whereas alcoholic beverages have strong and vigorous tastes, so how did Wang combine the two in such a way that one element did not overshadow the other? He points out that the compatibility of tea and alcoholic beverages depends on the grasp that the mixologist has of these two expansive fields of learning.

The optimal demonstration of this is the “Five Elements Formosa” bottled cocktails produced under the name of Indulge Bistro. These five mixed drinks, named after the five elements (or “five agents”) of Chinese philosophy—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth—imply the five tea ­plantations from which the tea is sourced, located in northern, central, southern, and eastern Taiwan as well as the offshore Penghu Islands.

Taking “Metal” for example, the foundation of the drink is gin (because “metal” in Chinese is pronounced jin), to which orange jessamine flowers and white peach are added, and these work in concert with the distinctive orange jessamine aftertaste of Pouchong (Baozhong) tea. The drink also hints at the environment of the tea plantation, located at Yuguang Village in New Taipei’s Pinglin District. Wang vividly describes the scene: “Looking down from the mountainside, you can see a river snaking through the valley, your ears pick up the sound of bells from mountain temples, and the land around the tea plantation is planted with orange jessamine and peaches.

As the sun sets in the west, the whole is bathed in a golden-yellow light. The terroir of the tea plantation—including summer-picked Pouchong tea, the scent of flowers and fruit, the color of the sunset, and the metallic striking of the bells—has been fully incorporated into the drink.”

Introducing Taiwan tea through alcoholic drinks

Wang has served as an ambassador for many alcoholic beverage brands and frequently travels overseas to attend events. He routinely interacts with foreigners by using tea–alcohol beverages as a representative product of Taiwan. He takes advantage of the fact that most Europeans and Americans are familiar with classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned, the Martini, and the Cosmopolitan to produce related drinks.

“Before you introduce yourself, you have to first pay respect to the other party’s culture and traditions.” For example, he replaces the bitters that are an essential ingredient in any Old Fashioned with Tungting (Dongding) oolong tea, causing people to ask with surprise: How can this Old Fashioned be so fragrant? He always explains patiently that the source of the osmanthus and longan aromas in this “Tungting Fashioned” is Taiwan Tungting oolong tea.

“I choose similar elements to substitute for classic elements, or to enhance a particular feature.” These beverages act as a lead-in that sparks foreigners’ curiosity about Taiwan, and from tea–alcohol beverages they can be introduced first to Taiwan tea, then to tea producing areas, then to Taiwan’s terroir and cultural environment and its diverse array of unique products. In this way, foreigners can be left with a deep impression of Taiwan.

Dreams of a national alcoholic beverage

Drinks made by adding tea to alcoholic beverages are among the things that many foreign visitors find so attractive about Taiwan. When the time comes to leave, what kind of drink can they take with them as a souvenir? At Taoyuan International Airport, the alcoholic beverages on display in the duty-free shop include one very special option: a drink produced by the Hometown Liquor Corporation that is made by mixing Kao­liang (gaoliang, i.e. sorghum) liquor with tea.

Hometown, founded in 2010, can be considered young in comparison with many other manufacturers of beers, wines, and liquors, but the brand’s four founders were all veterans with more than 30 years of experience in the industry. They are Zheng Shijin, former director of the Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau; Lai Shuntang, former president of the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL); Tsai Muh-lin, former TTL chairman; and Ruan Jinhe, former head of TTL’s Department of General Affairs.

The founding of Hometown represented the aspirations of these four industry veterans. Tsai Muh-lin, Hometown’s chairman, recalls the situation after it became legal for private-sector operators to brew or distill their own alcoholic beverages in 2002. Inevitably there was a great deal of confusion in the market during the transitional phase, and there were incidents of counterfeit, adulterated, or even toxic beverages. These issues became a common topic of conversation when these four old pros got together, and inspired them to found this enterprise.

When Tea Meets Alcohol: A Fascinating Combination
Two of Hometown Liquor’s founders: Zheng Shijin (left) and Tsai Muh-lin (right). (Taiwan Panorama photo)

A potential national drink

“Setting an example” implies the highest standards. Hometown, whose product line mainly comprises Kaoliang-­based drinks, allows its founders to fulfill professional dreams that they were unable to realize at TTL within the strictures of a government-run enterprise. Hometown’s brand image is one of dignity and strength, but not without vigor.

The flavors are created by combining Kaoliang liquor with Taiwanese agricultural products, thereby demonstrating the abundance of such products in Taiwan and the creativity of the drinks’ skilled producers. At Hometown, the sourcing of raw materials is not limited by the Government Procurement Act, so the firm can ­select high-grade ingredients and it is easier to implement traceability and quality control. They carefully oversee every detail of the most critical steps in the production process, from the yeast starter culture to fermentation to the temperature, pressure, and rate of distillation, as well as the training and requirements for staff.

Hometown has developed Kaoliang-based beverages in 34 flavors. The most popular are the “Tea Liquor” series, made by combining tea with alcohol, which includes High-Mountain Tea Liquor, Oolong Tea Liquor, and Black Tea Liquor.

In fact, combining tea with alcoholic beverages is not a modern idea. But the form that this combination takes has evolved and matured over time. Today most bartenders use the most basic method, infusion, immersing a suitable amount of tealeaves in a base alcoholic beverage to make the simplest type of tea–alcohol drink. However, because tea in its liquid form will rapidly oxidize, these drinks must be consumed right away, as they are not suited to long-term storage.

Meanwhile some, like Aki Wang, use a magnetic stirrer to produce a highly concentrated water-based liquid tea, after which the tealeaves are removed and the liquid is passed through a filter, similar to how syphon coffee is made. Next, other flavors are added to the liquid tea and the final blend is combined with an alcoholic beverage.

Hometown, whose finished products are as transparent as water, requires the highest level of technology. They use scientific instruments to assist them in regulating and adjusting all the variables in the liquor making process as they distill tealeaves and Kaoliang liquor together to create their clear tea–alcohol drink. It is hard to say whether the resulting product is tea or an alcoholic beverage, as there is a steady tea aroma amidst the alcohol fragrance. At the same time, their products have a very long shelf life.

“Tea–alcohol drinks are the type of alcoholic beverage that can best represent Taiwan,” says Tsai Muh-lin. They build on the ancient cultural tradition of alcohol production among ethnic Chinese people while also incorporating Taiwan’s distinctive tea products. The compatibility of alcoholic beverages and the unique characteristics of tea make it possible for professionals from different generations and different fields of expertise to find a common path forward. Working together, each can produce the kind of extraordinary beverage that in their minds best represents Taiwan.