At its simplest, sweet tea is a strongly brewed black tea sweetened with copious amounts of sugar and served ice cold. You may wonder which liquor goes well with sweet tea?
Sweet tea has its roots planted in the American South. Some liquor options that go well with sweet tea include bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila, and liqueurs.
This article will briefly explore sweet tea’s history and look at some alcoholic options, such as hard liquors and liqueurs.
What Is Sweet Tea?
The sweet tea recipe is straightforward:
- Combine hot water with sugar (or simple syrup) and black tea.
- Let it cool.
- Strain the tea (if you used loose leaf tea) or remove the tea bags.
- Serve ice cold with ice cubes. Easy peasy.
Common flavorings include lemon, peach, raspberry, or mint. They sometimes add baking soda to reduce the acidic taste—the longer tea brews, the more pungent and astringent it becomes.
They make sweet tea in batches, or gallons, rather than individual servings and keep it in the fridge.
We commonly associate sweet tea with the American South. It’s a matter of pride and heritage for them. It may be because South Carolina is the first place in the United States where tea was grown and produced commercially—the only place in the States.
The first tea plant arrived in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, André Michaux (1746-1802), imported it along with other showy plants such as gardenias, azaleas, and camellias.
These were, of course, desirable to the wealthy Charleston planters. They planted tea near Charleston at Middleton Barony, today known as Middleton Place Gardens.
Sugar also has its roots in the South. French Jesuit priests planted the first canes in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1751. Fast forward some 45 years, and Louisiana produces refined sugar using methods developed by Étienne de Boré (1741–1820).
Around the 1840s, Louisiana produced 25–50% of refined sugar in the USA, using slave labor to work the sugar plantations.
Hard Liquor Options
One of the very first ‘spiked’ or liquor-based recipes dates back to 1839: tea punch. The recipe, paraphrased in modern English, reads:
Make 1.5 pints (712 ml) of very strong tea as you normally would, remove the tea bags (or strain if using loose leaf tea), and add 2 ½ (500 grams) cups of white sugar. Stir to dissolve all the sugar. Add half a pint of rich sweet cream. Stir in a bottle of claret (Bordeaux red wine) or champagne. You could heat it up to the boiling point again before serving, or serve it ice cold (with ice cubes) in glasses.
This sweet recipe is from The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryan—you can read it free here. Adding red wine or champagne balances the tea’s sweetness.
But wine isn’t the only alcohol that pairs well with sweet tea. We will look at the options below.
Bourbon is another Southern staple, and it planted its roots in Kentucky and Tennessee. Sweet tea and bourbon are a match made in heaven.
I would not go overboard and buy the most expensive bottle I could find. Here, a $20–$30 range will serve just fine.
Bourbon containing a high rye content gives a spicy addition which contrasts with the sugary sweet tea. A wheat-based bourbon will give you even more sweetness per glass.
It all depends on your taste for the sweet stuff. Here is a recipe that produces 16 servings.
Sticking with a Southern favorite, you have Tennessee whiskey, which comes with its own set of rules to be branded. They make it from 51% minimum corn, giving it a sweet flavor such as notes of honey, browned butter, and marshmallows, thanks to the new charred American Oak barrels.
My favorite cocktail is the Sweet Tea Smash, invented in New York City at the famed Please Don’t Tell (PDT) speakeasy-style bar.
It is a marriage of Tennessee whiskey, Strega, sugar cane syrup, iced tea, lemon, and mint.
The last two ingredients are ‘muddled’ or smashed in a shaker, hence the name. I like to make my Sweet Tea Smash with sweet tea, and I leave the sugar cane syrup out of the recipe—sweet tea is already sweet in its own right.
Rum and tea have a similar flavor profile, and you won’t end up changing the tea’s flavor too much—it strengthens the tea flavor and adds some sweetness to the mix.
We will not enter the different classifications of rum here. They make rum from sugar cane byproducts such as the spent canes, ferment it, and distill it.
Vodka has been a staple in mixing cocktails because of its neutral taste (usually, Western-style, with an emphasis on a ‘clean’ and neutral taste).
It won’t alter the taste of your sweet tea too much, but it will pack an alcoholic punch—be mindful of this.
Tequila makes a wonderful addition to sweet tea. The interaction between the two creates a complimentary taste by elevating each other.
The taste will remind you of a margarita with a much sweeter taste.
Citrus-flavored liqueurs are the go-to choice here when using unflavored sweet tea. Cointreau and Triple Sec are good options.
Here is a comprehensive list of orange-flavored liqueurs to guide you.
Another fantastic option is sweet vermouth—one of the most important ingredients in it is wormwood.
As a bittering agent, wormwood adds complexity that is not too sweet, bringing a balance to sweet tea.
As a general rule, aim for about one cup of alcohol (of your choice) per gallon of sweet tea. You don’t want to kill the sweet tea’s taste with alcohol. You also don’t want to overwhelm the alcohol’s taste with sweet tea.
We have looked at various options to enhance your sweet tea, but ultimately, it is up to you what you would like to add and enjoy.