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The story behind Wuyi Whiskey and Yaupon Brandy, our limited edition holiday barrel scented teas, as told by Tony Tellin, head teamaker. 

Over the last several years, it has become a tradition at Smith to place teas in liquor barrels to develop the flavor of a special tea or blend into something unique and exquisite. The 2015 vintage consisted of three delicious blends, with the star of the show being the Irish Moringa: a blend of Indian moringa, bourbon vanilla bean, Spanish orange peel and star anise and scented in an Irish whiskey barrel courtesy of Ransom Wine & Spirits.

For this year, I wanted to return to our roots with scenting teas. I started the process with a focus on using single origin varietals and capturing the aromatics of the barrels. However, I did not know what barrels I would be able to access or which varietals to showcase. Luckily, we have some amazing friends, some old and some new, and everything came into place as life unfolded, as it often does.

Wuyi Whiskey

A few months ago, I sampled a wonderful Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong and immediately fell in love. This delicately smoked black tea from the Wuyi mountains is a sophisticated cup with leather, spice, smoke and natural sweetness. Commonly smoked with “horse tail” pine boughs, its aroma is intense, but when brewed it melts to a soft, sweet and balanced element, reminiscent of some scotches. Unfortunately, this specific tea did not meet our QA requirements.

I then reached out to a friend in the Zhejiang province that practices organic methods and asked him if he could replicate this tea. After a few rounds of sampling, while adjusting production and smoking methods, we found a winner. I purchased a small amount and had it shipped with an idea of offering it as part of our Gaiwan service in the tasting room.

I later found myself tasting tea with Christian from our next-door neighbor and local distillation icon: House Spirits. We tasted the Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong and commented on its stature, elegance and similarities to whiskey. During that tasting, a plan came into focus about placing this tea in a barrel. So, I was thrilled when he offered us a Westward whiskey barrel. Westward whiskey is and incredibly rich and smooth whiskey, and we both knew this collobaration would be quite special.  

Yaupon Brandy

I had the pleasure of meeting Hope with CatSpring Tea (from Texas) earlier this year. Her father had just moved to the Pacific Northwest and they both come by to visit and share some Yaupon tea. We had a wonderful meeting, however, I did not know how to make use of this tea. Yaupon is a member of the holly family and is the only caffeinated plant native to North America. When the leaves are harvested and roasted, they can be steeped to make a tea-like infusion. The flavor is unique with a sweet charcoal-like presence and an assertive bite, similar to black tea.

Through some introductions, I met Sebastian at Stone Barn Brandyworks and sampled their apple brandy. This brandy has body and strength with top notes and aroma. I really enjoyed their style and knew that their apple brandy barrel would go great as a vessel for scenting teas. We traded some tea for a barrel and a plan for the other barrel scented tea started to develop. I initially began with the idea to use the barrel to scent green honeybush from South Africa. However, a nagging feeling drew me back to yaupon. I dug out the original samples and re-tasted with the apple brandy barrel in mind and then reached out to Hope.

The Final Products

After all of these components arrived, we placed the single origin teas into the barrels and let them rest in our own cave: the basement of the tea factory. We rotated the barrels every other day to increase how much tea comes in direct contact with the wood and waited patiently. I started to sample the teas in early November and continued until the flavors from the barrels became fully developed and they were ready to come out of the barrels.

Wuyi Whiskey is a tea that could be enjoyed in a Gaiwan, cup and saucer or a crystal scotch glass. The smoked elements of the Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong softened in the barrel and filled out with wood and notes of whiskey. With a dark amber-like color, the natural sweetness and smooth complexity is sure to please over the holidays. This tea pairs well with wood fires, leather bound books and rich mahogany furniture.

Yaupon Brandy is absolutely delicious. The fruit and wood complexity of the apple brandy gave a center to the Yaupon, filling out some of the spikes in flavor and adding top notes that mingle perfectly with the roasted, charcoal elements and natural sweetness. It is light, yet full and sturdy, and a perfect cup of tea to compliment cheese, desserts and small holiday bites.

I am excited to release these two teas for the holidays and carry on our tradition. Special thanks to our friends at House Spirits and Stone Barn Brandyworks for making this happen.

Happy Holidays

Tony