When I was 21 years old, living in DC for the first time, and knew nothing about alcohol, my friend Courtney took me to a bar and handed me a drink. “Try this,” she said. “It’s a Long Island Iced Tea.”
“No thanks,” I replied. “I don’t like tea.” It was then that I learned that while a Long Island Iced Tea does use practically every other ingredient on the face of the earth, it doesn’t contain any actual tea. Ten years later, I would still politely turn down this cocktail, but for different reasons. And real tea, I now know, is wonderful stuff.
I thought of this story a few months ago when I was offered an incredible opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka to learn more about tea and explore its use in cocktails. As part of a collaboration between Lucas Bols, with whom I then worked more directly, and Dilmah Tea, a unique Sri Lankan tea company, I joined nine other bartenders from around the world — England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Australia, and New Zealand — for a ten-day tour of the country packed with tea tastings, tours of tea estates, and Iron Chef-style challenges to create tea cocktails at various stops along the way. It was in many ways the trip of a lifetime.
But first there was the matter of getting there, which required nearly 24 hours of travel. Surprisingly the northern route took about as much time as heading west, taking me from Portland to Seattle, from Seattle to a seven hour layover in Dubai, and finally from Dubai to Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo for an early morning arrival. I was the first bartender to land, and despite the time change, was stir crazy from all those hours in planes and airports. So I left my bags at the hotel and wandered off in search of fresh air and street food.
I might as well have had a large “T” for tourist written on my forehead for as obvious as it was that I’d just arrived. It wasn’t long before a friendly off-shift employee of one of the hotels offered to show me around. I didn’t want a tour, I just wanted to walk and find a place to eat. But he was persistent, it soon became obvious that going on foot wasn’t getting me anywhere interesting in that area, and my schedule for the rest of the trip was out of my hands, so I eventually thought what the hell and gave in. We flagged down a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis, and were on our way for the most whirlwind tour of a city I’ve ever been on. To where? I had no idea.
As the tuk-tuk drove us up an isolated dirt road, I began to doubt the wisdom of zipping off with this stranger in an unknown city. But I needn’t have worried. Our first stop turned out be a towering Hindu temple, which was strikingly ornate, although deserted at the moment. We walked around, snapped a few photos at my guide’s insistence, and were on our way to the next stop within a few minutes.
This turned out to be another temple, Buddhist this time, bustling with people. And one elephant. I wasn’t expecting to find a live elephant right in the middle city, but there he was, getting a good scrub down.
Also present: the temple elephant’s predecessor, preserved in the courtyard. The inside, too, was packed with stunning works of ivory that I hoped were at least few decades old.
Our next stops were political landmarks, including what I think is the capitol and then Independence Square, built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948. It was empty save for a snake charmer performing on the steps, from whom I kept my distance.
From what I can figure from Googling, the next place we visited was Viharamahadevi Park, the largest public park in the city. Though a nice place, I wasn’t sure why my guide was walking us through it. It was almost entirely full of young couples in various states of making out and that definitely wasn’t on my agenda. Then we got to the tree above. The things hanging from it? Those are flying foxes, among the largest bats in the world.
These are amazing creatures, circling the tree even in day time. It was fantastic getting to see them in person, and I only caught glimpses of them the rest of the trip, so I was grateful that my guide brought me here.
Through all this we still hadn’t stopped for what I initially set out for, which was food that didn’t come from a plane or airport. I finally convinced him to take us somewhere for us to have lunch. By this time I had no idea of where we ended up, but it served some of the best crispy chicken I’ve ever had.
Finally it was time for me to get back, but the guide insisted on one more stop, trying to sell me on bargains at a dubious gem store from which he’d presumably get a kickback. Then there was an offer of stopping for a massage with implied extra services, which I also declined. The tuk-tuk brought us back, and I paid for the tour — a little too much, in hindsight, but it was a side of the city I wouldn’t see during the more structured experience to come.
Back at the hotel I went to the pool and found a David Wondrich book left open by a chair, a good sign that other bartenders had arrived. Our first day was mostly free of responsibilities, so we spent it drinking Dilmah teas and spirits from our home countries. The next day, however, we had a our first challenge: Presenting a variety of tea cocktails to about 70 guests visiting from all over the world to learn more about tea.
My usual go to for tea cocktails, smoky black lapsang souchong, was picked by someone before me. But Dilmah had something even more interesting, what they called their Ceylon Souchong. Instead of firing the tea over pine, they use fragrant wood from cinnamon trees, which are often grown right alongside tea plants. I made a simple syrup with the brewed tea and it worked perfectly in a variation on one of my drinks from a few years ago, the Smokejumper:
2 oz Bols Genever
3/4 oz Ceylon Souchong syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz Galliano
freshly grated cinnamon, for garnish
Shake and serve on the rocks.
Here’s a short video of the event, which was a fun way to kick off our week of events:
This was the first of five cocktail challenges we had throughout the trip, so I’ll be posting the rest soon, along with notes from the more official parts of our tour.
[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols and Dilmah.]