Thanks to its prominence on the menu at Starbucks and a rising role at coffee shops nationwide, chai is now being used in both hot and cold cocktails. The spiced flavor is featured as a traditional tea or as a syrup, providing depth, tannins and a taste profile that is hard to replicate with other single ingredients. Chai’s typical spice mix includes cinnamon, clove, ginger, cardamom and allspice, along with additional flavors like fennel, peppercorn, vanilla or star anise, creating a varied and dynamic taste experience.
“Chai is versatile in the way that it can be both savory and sweet,” says Van Zarr, lead mixologist at the urban farmhouse–inspired restaurant and bar Rye in Leawood, Kansas. “It adds an element of spice and an almost savory note to cocktails. Chai lends a nice tannic grip in the mouth feel when used as an infused tea, and when it’s made into a concentrate or syrup, it can have a creaminess that works well with the spices involved.”
Zarr pairs chai with darker spirits like Bourbons and other whiskies, Cognac, and aged rums. He makes a chai syrup for use in a variety of cocktails. Rye’s Dark & Stormy ($10) comprises Gosling’s Black Seal rum and ginger beer, house-made chai syrup, and lime juice, while the Harvest Moon ($11) is made with George Dickel Rye whiskey, Lustau Dry Amontillado Los Arcos Sherry, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, locally produced #22 Cardamom Honeysuckle bitters and house-made chai syrup.
Robb Jones, bar director at Spoon and Stable restaurant in Minneapolis, also uses chai in a Dark and Stormy variation. His version ($13)—served hot in the winter and over ice in the summer—is made with Plantation Grande Réserve rum, Amaro di Angostura liqueur, Gray Duck Burnt Sugar + Ginger Chai, ginger syrup and lime juice. “Having an instant complex spice component is great,” Jones says. “The tannins in the tea dry out the cocktail and add a mild bitterness that makes it craveable. Chai adds complexity and different levels of spice and acid not normally found in drinks. It can also counter-balance other intense flavors and sugar.”
At the Southern bistro Rapscallion in Dallas, bar manager Ravinder Singh enjoys chai’s varying taste experiences. He uses a house-made chai syrup in several drinks on the venue’s tiki cocktail menu and also infuses the chai syrup into vermouth. “The benefit of chai is its huge punch of flavor,” Singh says. “People are happy to try chai in a cocktail. It works in all seasons—a light, refreshing spring and summer cocktail or a boozy, stirred fall and winter drink.” Rapscallion’s Chai Moon Swizzle ($14) mixes Stillhouse Original Moonshine Clear Corn whiskey, Angostura Aromatic bitters, house-made orange acid and spiced chai syrup, and muddled mint.
Robbie Wilson, restaurant manager at Urban Farmer steakhouse in Portland, Oregon, says his customers are also open to chai cocktails. “Chai is becoming more prevalent because coffee-based businesses have embraced it as a healthy beverage,” Wilson explains. “Chai’s flavors are easy to get behind because consumers are used to chai lattes from Starbucks.”
Urban Farmer offers The Hot Henny ($13), made with Hennessy V.S. Cognac, Gosling’s Black Seal 151-Proof rum, house-made chai and honey syrup, and lemon juice. “Spice translates into flavor behind the bar,” Wilson says. “Chai helps impart those notes, along with depth and complexity. It adds wonderful warmth to cocktails and provides a great background for spirits.”