I first met Amy Dubin about two years ago when John Glaser, the London-based Compass Box founder, head whiskymaker and all-around rabble-rouser, was in New York City for a few days. Amy is a tea curator and importer who founded and owns Janam Tea, an Indian brand. She also runs tea service out of Garfunkel’s, a retro-sassy cocktail bar just upstairs from a trendy burger joint on the Lower East Side.
John was in town for a whisky festival, if memory serves, and he gathered some friends to meet with him at Garfunkel’s for a tasting event, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve been to a lot of tasting events in my time. He and Amy paired together whisky and tea. It was incredible. It got me thinking about whisky from an entirely new perspective, while also opening my eyes to aspects of tea I’d never considered before.
John introduced Stranger & Stranger, a special blend of Scotch, wheat and barley spirits that he crafted in honour of the design company of the same name that creates his gorgeous and enchanting labels. It had a dark, sticky toffee sweetness offset by fresh herbs and juicy apple. We tried it with Mandal Gaon Small Tea Farmers’ Oolong, which delivered shades of leather, tobacco and mahogany. Amy explained that since the leaves were dried over an open flame, but not entirely smoked, it offered only hints of smokiness. Had she paired it with John’s cultishly famous Peat Monster, it would have sent my palate into a tailspin.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Amy again, at a proper social distance, of course, and she opened my eyes even more widely to the similarities between tea and whisky, without even knowing that she was doing so.
Throughout her many trips to India over the past five years, the time she’s spent there totals more than a year. She told me about her visits to tea gardens, where people meticulously pick leaves and buds from extensive fields of neatly manicured tea plants. Fun fact: all tea – green, black, oolong – comes from Camellia Sinesis, a species of evergreen bush. Also, to be called tea, the blend has to contain some part of that plant. If you’re steeping a tea bag of chamomile buds or peppermint leaves, technically you’re not making tea.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting: all the basic store-bought tea bags in the world are made up of a blend of tea leaves, and the flavour depends on the leaves’ oxidation levels and cut sizes. Each component is selected for flavour as well as price point. It’s the same ingredient that goes into finer teas, it’s just prepared and presented differently. The ingredients are sourced from different farms and they’re combined for consistent taste – batch after batch, year after year. That consistency is achieved despite the fact that tea leaves are agricultural products, subject to so many factors that could potentially alter them. At some point between processing the incredible amount of leaves, where each tiny piece has to be dried and oxidised, and packaging, certified professional tea tasters assess them. They’re trained to perform remarkable feats of speed and accuracy. And remember: this is for cheap tea bags. Tea is remarkably under-priced when you think about it.
And I thought about it. I thought about it the very same way I think about blended Scotch – a mix of many, many single malts, which are virtually agricultural products and can be presented as a finer product. The consistency that blenders at Dewar’s or Chivas or Johnnie Walker achieve at massive volumes never ceases to amaze me. And like Twinings or Bigelow, when you consider the process and the scale, blended Scotch is astoundingly undervalued.
“When you drink a cup of tea, it’s the last stage of very long, complex process that’s subject to terroir, just like wine,” she told me. “India has the unique designation of being a country where there are different varieties, styles, colours, aromas and ways of drinking it, unlike any other in the world. In China, they just don’t have the same range of teas or ways to drink it. The diversity of Indian teas is a vast subject. You could go down so many rabbit holes.” Is that sounding familiar?