Smith Teamaker is slowly becoming my Cheers. It’s the place I go where my name is known, where I’m greeted with a smile, and share a witticism or two about/over tea. It’s a bit of a jaunt from my little ‘burb but worthwhile every time. On one such stop through, I made it a point to try out their Bai Hao Oolong and see if they could answer a pressing question. (“Was Bai Hao Oolong from Taiwan or Fujian Province, China? Seriously, the question’d been bugging me for months.)
I asked the taster room hostess if she knew the answer to my Bai Hao dilemma. She didn’t, but she retreated to the back to talk to one of their master blenders – Tony Tellin. I’d had conversations with Tony before. Great guy. I owe my oolong graduation – from mug to gaiwan – to him. Changed my brewing life, that little lidded cup did. But anyway…
He came out and immediately sidetracked my train of thought with an announcement. A new gin-infused prototype tea was ready. A couple of months back, he allowed me to sample a test-run of some Ti Kwan “Gin” – an oolong soaked in Tanqueray gin for an extended period of time, then re-dried. (My impression of that can be found HERE.) I loved the stuff and found that the natural floral/mineral foretaste complimented the newly-juniper’d body. Tony still felt that the winy top note wasn’t strong enough. Further experimenting was needed.
This time around, he played around with some Mao Feng green tea dipped in Sapphire gin. I assumed he was referring to Bombay Sapphire, but I’m not a gin connoisseur by any stretch. He brewed me a pot, while I smelled the bag. Oh boy, was it stronger on the nostrils than the oolong test! The taste was also stronger. The usual nutty/vegetal front was almost immediately pushed aside by a jolting juniper berry note that lasted to a tapered finish.
While I sampled that, my aforementioned Bai Hao, and later a pot of 1st Flush Darjeeling, he answered my initial query about Taiwanese/Chinese confusion. Bai Hao was Taiwanese, and the Chinese version used Taiwanese techniques. Relieved, enlightened and in dire need of…a different kind of relieving, I made my exit soon after.
Word came over the Twitter pipeline a week later that the final Mao Feng Gin was ready. I had just ended a rather trying day of errand-running, and a hot pot o’ tea sounded like the perfect decompressor. The drive was relatively painless, and I was there in no time for a pre-funk pot o’ Darjeeling. Tony came out a moment later with a 1oz. bag – a warm bag at that. This stuff was literally “hot off the press”. He told me to wait about four hours before sampling it.
I tore into it the next day.
The dry leaves were long, curly and dark green like a standard Mao Feng. The differences on sight were subtle. A part of me thought the leaves were a darker palette than their usual un-“ginned” counterparts; like those included in Smith’s own Mao Feng Shui. The true difference came in the smell. Gin has a very pungent aroma that screams juniper berries and gasoline, and some of that was present in the aroma. First whiff revealed a prologue of buttered/salted veggies but – like the prototype – was immediately pushed aside by a straight juniper-ish tang. It was also a surprisingly damp scent.
I wasn’t quite sure of the best way to brew this. I referred to Smith’s instructions for the Mao Feng Shui as a springboard. They recommended a three-minute steep in 190F water. That seemed a bit high of a temperature, but other Mao Feng brew tips echoed their notes. Even I dared steeps at 180F with Mao Fengs of yesterbrew. I stuck to their approach to the letter – 1 tsp worth in 8oz.
The liquor infused to a pale green with a leafy and berry-ish nose. Unlike with the prototype, it didn’t have the immediate vegetal kick on first sip. The juniper note also didn’t bust the door down, berry guns blazing. Instead, it was smooth yet grassy before transitioning into a citrus-berry-sweet body. The finish possessed an unusual texture – equal parts creamy and swift. In comparison to the Mao Feng Shui, I would have to say I enjoyed this more. The addition of a juniper berry/lemony note gave it a character I found similar to an early spring Long Jing with a hint of lemongrass and almonds. A second infusion brewed up quite well in color, but didn’t have as strong of a gin presence except in the aftertaste; still quite enjoyable, though.
This marks the third of Tony’s gin-infused experiments I’ve tried in a two-month period. While the Ti Kwan “Gin” idea was discarded – and I lament it – I can see how Mao Feng was the stronger candidate. It was a lighter green tea that could easily be improved upon. Mao Feng-style greens were never my favorite; too vegetal for my tastes. But the additional gin-basting gave it that extra oomph to push it into Long Jing/tamaryokucha favorability. I look forward to whatever Tony concocts next.
I’m holding out hope for a Bai Hao Oolong/Gewürztraminer pairing, but that’s just me.