There’s a well-circulated story about iced tea being invented in 1904 on a sweltering summer day in St. Louis at the World’s Fair. Entry was 50 cents, but with slim shade and thick heat, hot tea was a hard sell for a group of frustrated delegates from India. As the mercury rose, they decided to ice down the glasses in an attempt to lure patrons.
As much as this account has stuck over the years, Fred Thompson, author of Iced Tea, thinks it’s not entirely accurate. “I would say that story is partly true,” he muses. “In 1904, a larger set of the population could afford ice. Lots of people would have been exposed to iced tea on that day, and it’s possible the event popularized the drink nationally. However, the first accounts of icing tea occur much earlier in cookbooks like The Kentucky Housewives Cookbook, published in 1839. Iced tea was definitely the work of southerners.”
It didn’t take long before iced tea found its way into that other southern stalwart: cocktails. And these days bartenders have even more varieties to play with. “What I like about using iced tea is that the tannic nature can cut through sweetness in a cocktail,” says New Orleans bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg. “The first time I thought to use iced tea was when I wanted a punch that was like the offspring of an Arnold Palmer and a Mint Julep getting together.”
The resulting Sevillian, a bourbon cocktail with homemade mint syrup and Luzianne tea (like a southern version of Lipton’s), is now a go-to party recipe for Patton-Bragg. “I used Luzianne because it was meant to be a Louisiana kickback, but I generally like to experiment with something a bit more high-end,” she laughs.
These days, she and other bartenders are looking to premium whole-leaf green teas to complement fresh herbs from the garden. “We use fresh sugar cane at Dominique’s, and I’m going to be using iced green tea with fresh lemongrass, Thai basil and thyme with spirits like rhum agricole and cachaça,” she says.
In Kentucky, Jared Schubert of Mozz in Louisville, buys green tea by the five-pound container. “I’m a gunpowder tea junkie,” he says. Several of Schubert’s tea cocktail recipes are quirky twists on the old Ice Pick notion (vodka-spiked iced tea), like his Titipu Pick, a mix of gin, elderflower liqueur, honey and lemon with iced green gunpowder tea.
And in Atlanta, Kellie Thorn has a wealth of inspiration almost at her finger tips, as the coffee shop inside Empire State South, where she tends bar, offers a varied selection of loose teas. Thorn says retaining the nuances of a tea can be tricky in cocktails, so she leans toward bold black teas that can stand up to other ingredients. “I love working with the Golden Assam because it’s a nice, robust black tea with a true tea flavor. Icing tea is such a classic southern thing. Making drinks with it can be a challenge, but it’s a fun one.”