Tea is hot stuff! It is literally the most popular beverage in the world, after water of course. Fans of a good ‘cuppa’ seek out the complexity and nuance in the flavor of their teas, much like whisky lovers savor a good dram. Similar to whisky, tea is produced in many countries across many different continents. Also similar to whisky, tea ranges from cheap blends, suitable for cookie dunking, to rare and limited styles of single origin.
Tea is made from the leaves and buds of Camellia sinensis, which are processed through what is often referred to as fermentation, although it’s actually oxidation and other chemical reactions. It’s here that many of the complex polyphenol compounds essential to the color, aroma, and flavor of tea are created. Broadly speaking, green teas undergo very little processing, oolong teas are semi-fermented, and black teas are fermented the most. Heat is applied to end the oxidative process, not dissimilar to kilning malted barley to halt germination.
Tea is capable of producing hundreds of different flavor-active compounds. Many flavor compounds that result are common in both tea and whisky. When these similar compounds converge in your nosing glass, consider whether your impressions are of dried tea leaves or the bouquet of a freshly brewed cup. Seek out flavors that are familiar to you, like citrus-laced Earl Grey, sweetened iced tea, or even green tea. More dedicated tea drinkers might dial in on grassy and floral first-flush Darjeeling, smoky lapsang souchong, or genmaicha from Japan with its nutty, roasted rice notes. It’s perfectly fine to just observe “tea” notes in whisky, but when floral scents, mild fruitiness, grassy meadows, or tannic astringency of a specific leaf align neatly in your dram, it can be fun to perfect your whisky descriptions down to a T.
A Steep Learning Curve
Black Tea—Springbank 15 year old: Tropical fruits, brine, and woodsmoke
Earl Grey—Corsair Wildfire American Malt: Barbecue smoke, tobacco leaf, and black pepper
Lapsang Souchoung—Lagavulin 16 year old: Kippers, laurel, and sweetness