On the leading edge of cocktail culture, an unexpected alchemy is taking shape involving both tea and cocktails at Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco. A creative collaboration between liquid culinarian Adam Chapman and master tea blender Jesse Jacobs has resulted in a deeply innovative new tea-based cocktail menu (!) that just launched at the Yerba Buena Gardens Samovar location. We were thrilled to get the very first interview about this unique menu launch and hear about the inspiration behind it. Come read what this talented team set out to do, learn about the extensive research behind each drink, and and then head over to Samovar to try delicious cocktails that you never knew could exist!
A chance conversation with a mutual friend led Jacobs, the founder and owner of the Samovar Tea Lounges, to connect with Chapman, a chef who has translated his culinary skills into the world of spirits and mixology. Jacobs says “Partnering with Adam, who is super passionate about all things food and drink, led to a conversation about how we could take some accessible spirits that could really accent the flavors of the teas.” The highly refined menu of “spirituous teas” plays with unusual ingredients and flavor combinations, re-imagining what a cocktail is. “We wanted to create drinks with a high dynamic range, and push the norms of the way people think about cocktails.” says Jacobs, who sources and blends teas from all over the world. His love of tea is based in part on the nostalgic power of the beverage. “Tea is about triggering memories – maybe it reminds you of your grandmother’s fresh baked tortillas, or your grandfather’s attic and his old leather jacket.” Samovar’s cocktail menu builds on this concept, paying innovative homage to the memorable flavor profiles that have led well-loved cocktails like the Negroni, or the French 75 to become classics.
Creating the flavor profile for each cocktail took weeks of experimentation. For example, the process of creating the “Chamomile Citrus Cloud” (a cocktail reminiscent of the classic French 75) took Chapman and Jacobs three weeks of research and development, as they experimented with various infusion processes and ratios to see how the teas would respond to the spirits. The final combination of ingredients features chamomile blossoms, carbonated whisper dry vermouth, lemon oil, and cava. The cocktail has warm notes of honey and vanilla, balanced by the crisp froth of cava and the citrus element of the lemon oil. “The combination of the chamomile and dry vermouth creates a sweetness, as if we had added honey – but there’s actually no honey in the cocktail” Chapman explains.
The same level of thought and complex layering of flavors went into each of the other three cocktails on the menu. Take the “Bitter Botanist,” a cocktail built much like a classic Negroni. The tart complexity of tea made from Mongolian schizandra (known as “five-flavor berries”) takes on an entirely new dimension when paired with amaro and sweet vermouth. The bitterness of the schizandra and amaro and the spritz of juniper oil misted over the drink just before it is served are nods to the gin and Campari found in a classic Negroni, replaced here by other spirits. Chapman says “they bring in the bitter elements of a Negroni, but the drink is lighter, so the nuances of the schizandra and amaro come through.”
The ruby-hued “Hibiscus Nitro Bliss” cocktail (made from a tropical fruit tea, fortified wine, sake, sweet vermouth, and blood orange oil) leverages a technique taken from the realm of food science. A burst of tiny nitrogen bubbles, infused just before serving, softens and adds dimension to the drink. In creating the cocktail, “I thought about how the tea was blended, then broke the flavors apart to utilize their separate properties, spread out over the palate” explains Chapman, regarding his process for achieving balance. “The tea and white vermouth add sweetness, the sake brightens, and citric acid brings out the acidity of the fruit.”
The “Yuzu Dynasty” (a staff favorite during tastings) is a lightly savory blend featuring sake, yuzu, rice wine vinegar and wasabi. The nutty, spicy rim of sesame and togarashi and a strongly scented strip of nori floating atop the cocktail add additional facets of flavor. The combination of ingredients was inspired by classic tisane teas, which are typically composed not of leaves from Camellia sinensis (the botanical name for tea), but rather from the leaves of other plants, flowers, bark, roots, fruits, or seeds and spices. The umami from the rice vinegar and the strip of nori floated atop the drink are key elements of the cocktail – the collaborators deliberately chose a strongly-scented variety of nori so that the oceanic scent would permeate the drinker’s palate as the cocktail is sipped.
In preparation for the launch of the cocktail menu, Chapman trained each member of the staff individually. The one-on-one sessions were designed to educate them not only about how to make the cocktails on the current menu, but also to give them an understanding of the underlying flavor profiles, so they would have the skills to adapt as new cocktails are released. And indeed, in addition to the drinks currently launching, the team has a secret menu of as-yet unreleased cocktails that will be rotated onto the menu over the next few months. Plans for building out a bar at one end of Samovar’s Yerba Buena Gardens location are also in the works.
Written by Samantha Nobles-Block
Original photography for 24 East by Lauren Andersen
For more on Samovar, go here.