Drinks

Insane in the Tisane

Herbal teas that won't put your palate to sleep
Tea Service at Eleven Madison Park
Loose chamomile and lemon verbena teas | Photos: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table

You're getting veeerrrrryyy sleeeepyyy. Might it be because your tisane game needs a kick in the pot?

Tisanes—usually hot often slightly misnomered "herbal teas"—are lauded for their calming properties, but they don't have to be a snooze. While they contain no caffeine, the drinks can still offer a sensory thrill in the form of a lovely ritual; heady fragrances; and potent, surprising flavors.

Technically, yes, that dusty old bag of chamomile at the back of your cabinet is a tisane—or will be once it's infused or dropped into water. Great if it's past your bedtime and you need something to sip while everyone else is chugging espresso. Less so if you're looking to cap or complement a stellar meal.

That's exactly the disconnect that Eleven Madison Park dining room manager Chris Day wanted to fix when he re-examined the restaurant's tea offerings. Day, a veteran of New York City's Per Se and Gilt, went through a flavor awakening after taking a break from alcohol in 2001. "I started noticing subtleties, even in tea-bag teas," he says. And after a day spent sampling 30-plus varieties with In Pursuit of Tea founder Sebastian Beckwith, "It began a love affair. Tea is every bit as subtle, complex and nuanced as wine."

Tea service at Eleven Madison Park | Chris Day

In more recent years, Day has not only overhauled the standard tea service at EMP, but also energized the tisane selection with his favorite rooibos, Olympus mountain flower, organic Croatian chamomile, lemon verbena, dried lavender and mint, fresh mint and more. And he's just getting started, with the mantra of "Why not?"

"You can go out in the yard and pick things and see how they taste," Day proclaims, caveating, of course, that all items should be technically edible and washed. "Why not dried mango and bergamot, or dates or dried goji berries? Orange peel might be bitter, but give it a try. And I love rose petals." He also suggests mixing fresh spearmint and peppermint to see what you like, playing around and adding a touch of oil to the blend and experimenting with different sweeteners.

And while his particular interest is pleasing the palate, Day notes that sipping tisanes may have great benefits to the rest of the body as well. "Better minds than mine say there is truth to the medicinal benefits."

"The only limits are your imagination."

A selection of teas

Don't sleep on tisanes. Try these at-home tips from Day:

① Warm the pot (if you're using one) and the cup, and use an open strainer or a muslin bag that allows the herbs, peels, spices, leaves, bark or fruit to have maximum surface contact with the water and allow for expansion.

② EMP's rule of thumb is to use six grams of herbs to 331 grams of water (around 12 ounces), let it steep for three to five minutes after the boiling water is poured over the herbs and then dip the strainer a few times while it's being removed—but trust your own tastes, Day says. If you're using fresh herbs or prefer a stronger brew, let it sit for a few minutes longer.

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③ Worried about oversteeping? "Don't beat yourself up," Day says, "just add more water. And if you're really worried, dump it out and start again. Really, what we're talking about here is 99 percent water and 1 percent leaf."

④ Sugar can enhance certain flavors, such as rose, mint and vanilla, but here's another chance to experiment. Day's currently sweet on linden honey for its florality and suggests pairing orange blossom honey with chamomile or rosewater with rose petals and cardamom for a subtle, surprising flavor lift.

⑤ Using citrus fruit or peels? Brighten up the drink by squeezing them into the cup to release some of the oils before putting them in the strainer.

⑥ You don't have to abandon tisanes in warmer weather. Day advises pouring the hot drink over ice until it's melting, then adding more ice, pouring and repeating.

⑦ Keep exploring. Check out a few of Day's favorite tisane purveyors to get started: In Pursuit of Tea, Wild Tea Qi and Palais des Thés.

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