In early 2020, I developed long Covid and stopped being able to tolerate alcohol. In my experience, it was among the triggers of relapses so severe I would spend long stretches of time incapacitated with renewed symptoms of extreme fatigue, brain fog, tachycardia and more. As a food and drinks writer, this presented a particularly distressing work challenge: How could I create recipes that I couldn’t always have?
The tea cabinet offered endless inspiration. Teas have long imbued alcoholic drinks with both tannic qualities and aromatic range. (Think whiskey-laced toddies or 17th-century batched drinks like Regent’s Punch.) They can also lend a wide range of depth and character to nonalcoholic drinks.
“Tea is a really good way to build complexity into a cocktail,” said John deBary, a New York City-based bar expert, author and founder of the nonalcoholic drink brand Proteau. “Black tea, green tea and Lapsang souchong are all really good go-tos when I make a nonalcoholic drink.”
Whether your tea is bagged or loose-leaf, a household blend or single origin from a specific region and terroir, Mr. deBary suggests thinking about its application: The more ingredients in a drink, the less emphasis there is on the specific tea’s flavor. While he often works with specialty teas, he emphasized that “the best tool is what you have with you.”
Once you’ve chosen your tea, draw out its flavor by using one of two extraction methods, hot or cold. Steeping tea leaves in hot water before straining offers an immediate perk: The tea component of your drink is ready to use (after cooling to room temperature). Brewing teas longer and thus stronger also allows for stronger tea flavor and, often, more tannins, which can give your nonalcoholic drink a spirited mouthfeel.
If you’re using the tea in a mixed drink with many components, the hot method is fine. However, if you have time and don’t want to risk overextracting your tea (and creating an astringent infusion), Mr. deBary recommends the cold brew method: combining tea with cold water and letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator.
To build tea-based drinks, experiment with complementary flavors. Mr. deBary often pairs green tea with grapefruit or black tea with lemon. Chamomile, floral and botanical, mixes especially well with a vegetal celery simple syrup and fresh lime in a nonalcoholic Celery Sour, while the tannins in strongly brewed black tea play well with a spiced, salted lime cordial and ginger beer in an alcohol-free Dark ‘n’ Stormy Mocktail.
These days, after about a year of not drinking and a slow road to regaining my tolerance, I can again drink alcohol without worry of a symptom relapse, though I still imbibe in much smaller measures than my pre-long Covid body allowed.
The Celery Sour mocktail in particular has become a recent favorite: I pour the drink as is for myself and add a splash of mezcal or gin to my partner’s, both of us raising our slightly green, chamomile-laced glasses to the complexity, character and nuance that tea offers to drinks across the alcohol spectrum.