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, 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), 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. 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.
Recipe: Celery Sour Mocktail
Serve this bright, refreshing nonalcoholic mixed drink up in a chilled cocktail glass, or stretch it by pouring it over ice in a lowball glass and topping with a splash of soda water or tonic. However you choose to serve it, reserve the extra celery simple syrup and use it as a replacement for regular simple syrup in all manner of drinks, nonalcoholic and spirited, alike. Or, if you don’t have time to make the celery simple syrup for this drink, you can substitute in standard 1:1 simple syrup, though the resulting sour will lose some of its vegetal nuance.
Yield: 1 cocktail
For the celery simple syrup:
1 cup sugar
4 whole allspice berries
10 black peppercorns
Pinch of flaky sea salt (optional)
1 cup celery leaves (or 1/2 cup celery leaves and 1/2 cup parsley leaves)
For the Chamomile tea base:
2 chamomile tea bags (or 2 tablespoons loose leaf tea)
2 (3-inch) pieces lemon peel
For the cocktail:
1/2 lime, cut into quarters
1/2 celery stalk, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 ounce celery simple syrup
3 ounces chilled Chamomile tea
1. Prepare the celery simple syrup: In a small saucepan, combine sugar, allspice, peppercorns and salt (if using) with 1 cup water. Heat over low, stirring frequently, just until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the celery leaves (and parsley leaves, if using). Set aside to steep at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids. (You should have about 1 1/2 cups syrup.) Keep it in the refrigerator, tightly covered in an airtight container, for up to 3 weeks.
2. Prepare the chamomile tea base: In a tea kettle or small saucepan over high heat, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the tea and lemon peels. Allow to steep for 10 minutes, then remove the tea bags and peels or, if using loose-leaf tea, strain through a fine-mesh sieve and set aside to cool completely. Keep it chilled in the refrigerator, tightly covered in an airtight container, for up to 5 days.
3. Prepare the cocktail: In a shaker, add lime, celery pieces and the simple syrup. Muddle to smash and release the lime’s juices. Add the chilled chamomile tea and ice. Cover and shake vigorously until well chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora or coupe glass.
Recipe: Dark ’n’ Stormy Mocktail
Strongly brewed black tea anchors this nonalcoholic take on a classic Dark ’n’ Stormy, lending its rich tannins to the final drink. When choosing a black tea, look to Darjeeling, English or Irish breakfast, or Assam. (For something without caffeine, reach for buckwheat tea and increase the brew time to 20 minutes.) The spices in the salted lime cordial are easily shifted to your pantry and preferences. If you don’t have ground ginger, totally fine. If you want to add cardamom, go for it. The point is to infuse the cordial with a warmth that complements the ginger beer’s sharp spice. Please don’t, however, skip the salt. The hit of salinity enhances the cordial’s flavors. Leftover cordial — sweet, spiced and deeply sour, can be mixed on its own with sparkling water or tonic or, if you’re looking to incorporate it into an alcoholic drink, into a gimlet.
Yield: 1 serving
For the salted lime cordial:
Finely grated zest from 6 limes
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 cups fresh lime juice (from about 6 limes)
For the chilled black tea:
2 black tea bags (or 2 tablespoons loose-leaf black tea), such as Darjeeling
For the cocktail:
3 ounces chilled black tea
1 ounce salted lime cordial
4 ounces fresh ginger beer
1. Make the cordial: In a medium bowl, combine the lime zest, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, pepper and cloves. Use your fingers to rub the zest and spices into the sugar until the sugar is green and very fragrant. Slowly pour in the lime juice, whisking to combine and dissolve the sugar completely. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, up to 24. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve; pressing on the solids. (You should have about 1 1/2 cups cordial.) Discard the solids, and keep the cordial in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
2. Make the chilled black tea: In a tea kettle or small saucepan over high heat, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the tea. Allow to steep for 10 minutes, then remove the tea bags or, if using loose-leaf tea, strain through a fine-mesh sieve and set aside to cool completely, then refrigerate. Keep it chilled in the refrigerator, tightly covered in an airtight container, for up to 5 days.
3. Make the cocktail: Fill a highball glass with ice. Add the tea and cordial. Top with ginger beer, stir gently to combine and finish with a lime wedge.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.