Food

Molecular mixology: Hong Kong bar Tell Camellia infuses tea with alcohol

Oct 25, 2019

When you step into Tell Camellia, what may be Hong Kong’s only tea-focused cocktail bar, the first thing you’ll get is a lecture on the origins of the tea plant.

“So Camellia, what is Camellia? It’s the mother plant of all tea,” says Gagan Gurung, the co-owner, as he hands us the menu and explains the bar’s name and concept.

The interior of Tell Camellia.
The interior of Tell Camellia. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

In an age of gimmicky mixology bars, you can be forgiven if Gurung sounds like he’s overcompensating.

Bars that combine tea with alcohol are a dime a dozen, especially in Asia, where they range in sophistication from simply mixing hot tea and liquor to soaking leaves in alcohol and redistilling it with a rotovap.

Sandeep Hathiramani and Gagan Gurung, co-founders of Tell Camellia in Hong Kong.
Sandeep Hathiramani and Gagan Gurung, co-founders of Tell Camellia in Hong Kong. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

Tell Camellia lies on the more ambitious end. Gurung and his business partner, Sandeep Hathiramani, source tea leaves from different parts of the world, sous-vide them with alcohol, and then construct cocktails that seek to invoke the flavors of their locale.

The Japan cocktail is made with matcha-infused vodka, seaweed, and natto, a Japanese side dish of fermented soybeans.
The Japan cocktail is made with matcha-infused vodka, seaweed, and natto, a Japanese side dish of fermented soybeans. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

The Japan, for instance, is made with matcha-infused vodka, seaweed, and natto, a Japanese side dish of fermented soybeans. The Kenya is a blend of Marinyn black tea, banana, sweet potato, and cornflakes-infused tequila.

All pure tea—whether it’s black, green, dark, or oolong—comes from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. The plant is to tea as grapes are to wine.

For Gurung and Hathiramani, the attention they’ve paid to sourcing the tea is why they feel the need to explain things in detail.

The Kenya is a blend of Marinyn black tea, banana, sweet potato, and cornflakes-infused tequila.
The Kenya is a blend of Marinyn black tea, banana, sweet potato, and cornflakes-infused tequila. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

All pure tea—whether it’s black, green, dark, or oolong—comes from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. The plant is to tea as grapes are to wine.

(Read more: Everything you need to know about Chinese tea, from green and black to oolong and beyond)

Although its origins lie in China, the tea tree is now grown all over the world, and where it grows, the terroir, the local environment, and the techniques that people use to process the leaves affect how the tea tastes.

“Tea is like whisky. There’s a million different kinds of whisky. But if you drink them side by side, the difference is there.”

Gagan Gurung

“We wanted to focus on countries that you’ve never heard of before, places that you never knew also made tea,” Gurung says. He compares tea to whisky and notes how both tastes are acquired. “There’s a million different kinds of whisky,” he says. “They taste similar. But if you drink them side by side, the difference is there.”

The Australia is made with tea-infused whisky, blue cheese, and Tim Tams.
The Australia is made with tea-infused whisky, blue cheese, and Tim Tams. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

That’s why they’ll tell you that the black tea in their Australia drink is from northern Queensland, a region with hot summers and mild winters (perfect for tea growth). And they’ll explain to you why that cocktail has blue cheese and Tim Tams (it’s a popular chocolate brand in Australia, and the blue cheese, well, it adds a nice savory balance).

Molecular mixology

The bar has a lab in Hong Kong where ingredients are either cooked sous-vide or left sitting in room temperature with alcohol. The process can take up three hours with sous-vide and up to 12 if it’s just cold-brewed.

Gagan Gurung prepares to run a batch through the bar’s rotovap.
Gagan Gurung prepares to run a batch through the bar’s rotovap. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

This fuses the ingredients’ flavors into the liquor, allowing them to create a vodka with matcha notes or a whisky with hints of blue cheese and Tim Tams. A rotovap extracts the alcohol from the mix so that it can be used in a cocktail.

(Read more: Baijiu in Portland: The Vietnamese family that brought China’s most famous liquor to America)

Many of these innovations—now referred to as “molecular mixology”—actually came from the kitchen. Sous-vide cookers and rotary evaporators have long been used in molecular gastronomy to fuse flavors, and the methods have slowly been reaching the back of the bar.

A drink from the bar’s T&Tonic series, which is made with clear tea-infused gin.
A drink from the bar’s T&Tonic series, which is made with clear tea-infused gin. / Photo: Provided by Tell Camellia

It’s similar to the trajectory that Gurung, who grew up in Hong Kong, has also taken.

“My first F&B job was in a kitchen,” he says, referring to the food and beverage industry. “But I didn’t like it because even though there’s the flavor, there’s creativity, it’s behind the scenes. I want to be more interactive with the customer, to be on stage telling them the story.”

He’s certainly doing a lot more of that these days.

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Credit

Producer and Narrator: Gavin Huang

Host: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Hanley Chu

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche

Animation: Ray Ngan