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News / Drinking

Chinatown’s latest collab pairs tea and mezcal in one of the neighborhood’s best bars

General Lee's bar Chinatown mezcal STEEP LA tea
Photograph: Stephanie Breijo

There’ll always be a place in our hearts for hot toddies, but this month General Lee’s has us trading scotch for mezcal.

The moody cocktail bar at the heart of Chinatown Central Plaza is now pairing small-production mezcals with even smaller-batch teas from neighboring Steep LA, the sleek, modern tea house that’s tucked into Mandarin Plaza just across the street. It’s an unusual match, but not an unlikely one. 

“They’re both very terroir-driven, they’re both very handmade, and you could easily burn them and ruin the entire experience,” says General Lee’s lead bartender, Philip Ly. His new, collaborative tasting flights are roughly six months in the making, and if you want to taste them, you’ll have to act fast: Due to Steep’s limited tea production, the bar can only serve up to 10 flights a night.

Tea and spirits have long been mixed—see also: hot toddies, colonial-era tea punch, and even DTLA’s Rudolph’s Bar & Tea, which focuses exclusively on tea-steeped cocktails—but mezcal and Chinese teas are a more recent combination, and an especially L.A. one blending Mexican and Eastern culture in an energizing way. That the teas are roasted and brewed locally makes for an exquisitely fresh experience, aided all the more by format.

Sipping one with the other, as opposed to a mixed glass of the two, offers more opportunity to appreciate the nuance of each. And if you’re worried the smoky, rich flavors of the slow-cooked–agave spirit could overwhelm the delicate oolongs and green teas, Ly’s got you covered.

“Mezcal will typically blow out your palate,” he says, “but tea dries your palate out a little more, so you’re ready to go—especially if you go with the darker teas.”

Photograph: Stephanie Breijo

But Ly’s tasting flight begins on the lighter end of the spectrum both in tea leaf and mezcal body: with Steep’s green—roasted at a lower temperature but with a longer cook time, to help eliminate bitterness—matched with Machetazo’s Oaxaca-grown espadin, a mezcal that’s smoky on the front end and vaguely earthy, and even more so after a sip of tea.

The second pairing places Gem & Bolt’s Oaxacan-grown–agave spirit next to an oolong that mildly sings of honey. Together, first with a sip of the unbelievable smooth mezcal (which sports a touch of chamomile flavor thanks to the distillery’s addition of damiana shrub), they taste almost like a boozy Sleepytime Tea, without hitting the hay. 

Ly’s last round features the Machetazo cupreata, whose cupreata agave grows in the mountains of Guerrero and absorbs the earthiness for a borderline herbaceous, funky and almost coppery flavor—but sip it alongside Steep’s black tea and you’ll uncover more of its natural sweetness, a touch of molasses on the tongue. 

Ly, who’s been slowly building the bar’s mezcal program for the last two years, only runs the collaborative flights during weekday happy hour to allow ample time; he wants to ensure the imbibers lifting sips off those custom wooden tasting boards—built by Steep’s owners, Samuel Wang and Lydia Lin—can talk through the experience and leave with their questions answered. 

Expect these particular pairings for the next few months, then new iterations which might involve, say, mezcal de pechuga, a mezcal whose method involves the ceremonial hanging of poultry or game, which can add rotisserie, meaty flavor to the finished product. It’s all in the pursuit of good tea and mezcal, but especially knowledge. 

“It’s fun to talk about to me, and each bottle is very very different,” Ly says. “I mean, I love bourbon and I love whiskey, but it’s harder for the general public to taste the smaller tasting notes of those, whereas [with mezcal] you can have a quick crash course.”

Find this new collab Tuesday to Thursday, from 6 to 9pm, for $14 at General Lee’s in Chinatown Central Plaza (475 Gin Ling Way).