Bartender gives teahouse a cool summertime twist
In this very traditional Ming-style teahouse, the flavors and aromas I’m experiencing are a little unexpected. Tarragon. Grapefruit. Pepper. Blueberry. So far the profile might fit an exotic kind of fruit tea, except these were muddled in a good gin.
You could forgive the staff at the luxe Nuo hotel’s Yuan Teahouse for being a little confused. The elegant space in Beijing has a well-earned reputation for top Chinese teas served in a very traditional style.
Now they were being asked to serve gin drinks? And ICED tea?
“We can do something a little different and still do it with great quality,” says Attila Balint, the hotel’s resident bar guru.
Invited to come and cool off on a recent 40 C Beijing afternoon, a dozen local media folks from around the capital gathered in the hotel’s tea house, where Balint first poured refreshing sips of four specially brewed chilled teas.
The idea might feel straight from the American South, where I was raised, but the flavors were pure Chinese. Feng- huang, a smooth oolong. Jasmine, “Don’t add ice — make ice out of it in a tray, then add it to cocktails or a sparkling wine.” Wuyi Shuixian, roasted to give it a sweet note, and a hint of bacon. (“It’s chilled, but you feel its warmth as it goes down.”)
The fourth offering is not tea at all but suanmeitang, a Chinese beverage known for at least a thousand years, made from smoked plums, rock sugar and other ingredients such as sweet osmanthus.
“The first taste may be a bit sour,” says Balint, “but then you start feeling the different layers: sour plum, hibiscus flower, dried orange peel with a candied taste. I like to add it to sparkling wine with hibiscus flower.”
Balint has made his own study of teas — his face lights up when discussing the most precious teas from ancient trees in Yunnan province — but he soon moves on to another crowd-pleasing topic: gin.
Donning a white medical lab coat, a stethoscope and big round glasses, the cocktail specialist suddenly appears at the head of the table with a trolley loaded with 37 gins and six tonics.
“Yes,” the self-described Gin Doctor proclaims, “we have now transformed a tea house into a gin garden”.
The cart can be overwhelming — the second shelf has an equally broad array of “botanicals”, the extra ingredients and flavors one might add to a gin and tonic. They range from fresh and dried fruits to rosemary, almond, vanilla and more aromatic goodies in delicate porcelain jars.
The Gin Garden Menu makes it easy on the left side, with a lengthy list of signature cocktails, including a limeand-cherry blossom delight with sakura tonic. For the most adventurous, the right-hand page is a guide to making your own blends. Signature cocktails run 80 yuan ($12) each; DIY creations may run around 150, depending on which gin and which tonic you choose.
Want to learn more? The Gin Doctor is in — Balint’s trolley appears in the teahouse every afternoon and rolls up to O’Bar in the evenings. Yuan Teahouse
Yuan Teahouse at Nuo Hotel Beijing, A2 Jiangtai Road, Chaoyang district. 0105926-8281.
Graceful interiors and courtyard evoke the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) era, even using Yixing Clay teapots popularized during the Ming period. Premium teas on offer include green tea from Hangzhou and Suzhou, black tea and white tea from Fujian, pu’er tea from Yunnan and oolong tea from the Wuyi and Anxi mountain regions, sourced directly from Chinese tea farmers and plantations with cultural heritage