Here's something I didn't know until I started doing research for this column: A few years ago, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) started cracking down on bartenders who were "rectifying" spirits. Rectifying, according to ABC, was "any process or procedure whereby distilled spirits are cut, blended, mixed or infused with any ingredient which changes the character or nature of the distilled spirit."
This was an interpretation of an antiquated state law, and it almost put the kibosh on doing things like, say, infusing Campari with passionfruit tea, which means we'd never have Bankers Hill restaurant's sublime Roman Pipeline cocktail, made with white rum, passion-fruit-tea-infused Campari, pineapple, lemon and orgeat.
Given that enforcement was focused on San Francisco—California's craft-cocktail hub at the time—Sen. Mark Leno quickly introduced legislation to allow mixology wizards to work their magic unimpeded.
As a result, there are some mighty good tea-infused cocktails showing up on menus around town. In addition to the Roman Pipeline, Bankers Hill's also got the whiskey-sour-inspired Golden Thrill (bourbon, clove-green-tea-infused Amaro Meletti, lemon and honey). Just up the street, Bertrand at Mr. A's offers a caffeine buzz in the form of the simple-but-elegant Royal Tea (black-tea-infused gin, spiced orange honey and fresh lemon). On the Westgate Hotel's newish "Tipsy Teas" menu, you'll find Rumbling Tins Cocktail Co.'s trio of tea-infused cocktails. My favorite was A Royal Affair, a take on a margarita but with Green Chartreuse and tequila infused with cinnamon tea. It was a totally unexpected flavor that totally worked.
If you want to try to infuse your own spirits, there's no end to online how-tos. Steeping time depends on what kind of liquor you're using and how much. Or, skip the infusing and simply use tea like you'd use a mixer. Either way, Coffee & Tea Collective in North Park is the place to get your product. I asked co-owner Michael Spear what he'd recommend.
"A nice black tea tends to work best with bourbon-based drinks," he says. Coffee & Tea Collective's black tea, for instance, blended with orange peel and cloves, "gives a nod" to Southern iced tea without being overly sweet, Spears says. Folks use chai tea for a take on a hot-toddy (keep that in mind for fall and winter). And the green and herbal teas go well with lighter spirits. In fact, Coffee & Tea Collective's herbal tea— organic chamomile, spearmint from New Roots Community Farm, organic blackberry leaf and Cascade Hops from Star B Ranch in Ramona—is kind of begging folks to get creative.
For something quick-and-easy, try Owl's Brew (available at Pigment in North Park). The tea-based mixer—small-batch, made in Vermont— comes in three flavors: Pink & Black (darjeeling, hibiscus, lemon, strawberry and agave), The Classic (English Breakfast tea with citrus) and Coco-Lada (chai, coconut and pineapple). You can't go wrong with any of them. Pink & Black works really well with bourbon (or white wine for a twist on sangria). Try Coco-Lada with vodka or spiced rum for a less-sugary pina colada. The Classic works with both vodka and gin— at least that's what my husband tells me. He and a friend finished it during a World Cup match. The empty bottle smelled really nice, though.