One of the more wholesome aspects of my personality is my deep and abiding love for tea: always loose leaf, preferably a nice Phoenix or Wuyi oolong, and, ideally, sourced from independent tea shops who cultivate direct relationships with individual farmers. (Beneath all these tattoos, foul mouth, and heavy metal is a quiet, soft-spoken gal who often likes nothing more than a nice cup of tea). It’s a very pleasant hobby, one that leaves a lot of room for exploration, appreciation, and discovery, but it’s also pretty low-key. Real tea heads can tell you all about cha qi, the elusive, euphoric burst of energy an experienced drinker can channel when a particularly magical tea hits just right. But even dipping into a stash of the rarest, most lovingly aged pu’erh is still not exactly a high-octane joyride. That’s one of the things I like most about it—at the end of the day (and bottom of a cup), it’s really all just leaves and vibes.
When I finagled a pass to this year’s World Tea Expo, I expected it to be a reasonably chill experience, and found it more than a little ironic that it was being held in Las Vegas of all places. My main goal for attending was to pick up some new tea knowledge, see if there were any interesting product developments on the horizon, and scavenge for as many free samples as possible. Visions of sweet old folks peddling cozy herbal concoctions and debonair international tea traders danced in my head as I walked up to the entrance of the convention center’s South Hall, and saw a gigantic banner stretching across the double doors: BAR AND RESTAURANT EXPO 2022. I knew I was still in the right place because a little green sign advertising the World Tea Expo was tucked underneath, but once I got inside and found myself subsumed into the massive crowd waiting to enter the expo hall itself, I realized that I was in for a very different kind of afternoon.
It was the Tea Expo’s first in-person showing since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and expo veterans told me that it had been scaled down considerably; as a result, the two events had been combined in the same cavernous hall. In order to reach the tea section, I would have to wend my way through an intimidating thicket of restaurant machinery, high-end barware, mysterious displays of restaurant payroll “solutions,” and booth after booth of liquor brands. It was the latter that worried me most, because, well… I had been left unsupervised, and by the time I’d exhausted the tea section’s possibilities, I had had a lot of caffeine, and started feeling squirrely.
My mother raised me to appreciate the finer things in life, by which I mean I was taught at an early age that free samples are precious, and nearly always mandatory. For his part, my father taught me how to drink whiskey, and that even the gnarliest rotgut has its charms. Armed with this ancestral knowledge, I concentrated my attentions on the whiskey family, kicking off the more chaotic portion of the day with a swig of Ole Smokey Moonshine’s new mango habanero “moonshine” (if it’s not illegal, it ain’t really shine, but I wasn’t there to quibble). It was surprisingly delicious, with a nice lick of heat and a pleasantly fruity aftertaste.
Emboldened, I wandered over to Howler Head’s retina-searing orange-and-yellow display, which included a life-size cutout of some brolic UFC fighter and a gaggle of bros crowded around a punching bag machine (apparently they’re the official flavored whiskey partner of the UFC). Their take on flavored whiskey, which sees them infuse generic Kentucky straight bourbon with “natural banana flavor,” is one of the strangest I’ve ever seen—and, inexplicably, one of the tastiest. It was seriously like drinking a banana Now & Later that just happened to warm your throat on the way down. I’m not too proud to admit I asked for seconds, and also took a swing at the punching bag (I’m no pro, but I did get a higher score than the two dudes who’d gone before me, which I celebrated by toddling off to sniff out more drink crimes).
That section was rife with potential, but the pièce de résistance came straight out of Austin, Texas, in the form of a truly unspeakable horror: Kurvball Barbecue Whiskey. After spending a few long minutes in line to try a “barbecue old fashioned,” I realized that the bartender was scanning peoples’ event badges, and panicked—I wasn’t entirely sure what the rules were on double-dipping between expos, and loathe to abandon my own drink crimes, fled to a quieter side of their giant vertical bar. There, I chatted with another very nice bartender about what made this particular whiskey “barbecue.” I’d assumed it was something to do with the actual process, and started babbling about charcoal and scotch until the poor man stopped me and said, gently, “It’s barbecue…flavored.” Stricken by horror but trapped by politeness, I took the proffered plastic cup, and hucked back a liquid lie that sent me spiraling into a mesquite-smoked uncanny valley. It didn’t taste bad; it tasted exactly how you’d think a barbeque-flavored whiskey would, which was the part that freaked me out so much. It’s probably excellent in cocktails and various beef-heavy situations, but… it just ain’t right.
By then, I was feeling a little toasty, and had made it my new mission to seek out the most aggressively terrible, weird, or unexpected liquors I could, as a bit. I was soon richly rewarded. Looping back through the tea section, I stopped by the Tea Bar, and tried a cupful of their “Tea Ball” signature cocktail, which was made with Beattie’s potato vodka, blood orange juice, and some kind of evil lemonade, and was far more bitter than anything that day-glo orange has any business being.
A good tea cocktail can be a beautiful thing, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t more crossover between the two camps; the bar and restaurant people ignored the tea section entirely, while the tea people valiantly tried to ignore the pumping techno music and errant smoke bubbles drifting over from the bar zone. (I did see more than a few tea folk in the booze lines, though!) The Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey booth’s intermittent fire-twirling shows did not do much to soothe the dissonance, and I did not feel it necessary to sample their wares because I was a college student in the early 2000s, and know better.
I stopped by Middle West Spirits’ booth because, well, they looked normal, and I needed to wash away some of the more offensive flavors I’d just imbibed. I tried their sherry-finished bourbon and pumpernickel rye, which were both quite nice, but found myself drawn to their Bourbon Cream liqueur. The concept wasn’t all that weird, but I’ve never had a cream liqueur before, and was feeling lucky. The drink itself was somehow one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted, like melted bourbon vanilla ice cream (it turned out that the Ohio-based company has actually collaborated with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams). I was pretty wasted by then, so your own mileage may vary, but bear in mind that this is coming from a whiskey snob.
Then, a few booths over, I spotted what must surely be one of the loveliest phrases in the English language: “Spiked Boozy Sorbet.” A smiling woman tossed me a little cup of their Bourbon Berry sorbet (5% alcohol by volume, yowza!) and it was perfect; the sorbet itself was surprisingly velvety and rich (think Haagen Dazs Raspberry Sorbet, but chock full of booze). I was so blissed-out I almost forgot about how many different types of alcohol were merrily sloshing around together in my 34-year-old stomach.
It all went severely downhill from there. I tried some kind of semi-cursed non-alcoholic herbal Tom Collins, various other cream liqueurs (mango works, coffee…eh), and a few other unimpressive bourbons. Near the bitter end, I found myself quadruple-fisting two different tequila cocktails (one had hibiscus, the other was… blue?) plus two tea-flavored vodka shots (one green tea-based, which was vegetal in a bad way, and one that was made with white tea, which was transcendent) which really tied the whole experience together. I am not one to waste a drink, but by that point, I had basically given up. The final booth before the exit belonged to Captain Morgan, an old foe; I almost made it past that rat bastard, but spotted one last challenge. One sip of that Cherry Vanilla Spiced Rum, though, and I was done; the overwhelmingly artificial sweetness and sharp, sickly notes of toilet bowl cleaner were simply too much to endure.
I tossed the remnants in the trash as I stumbled out into the unforgiving Nevada sun, clutching my little bag of tea samples (success!). Bleary-eyed and spinny, I began walking towards the nearest diner, hoping to soak up my sins and stave off the daytime hangover that was already beginning to crest. Said walk took me past the garish landmark Circus Circus casino, and the last text I remember sending that day was to my friend Rupa. All it said was, “I’m gonna try to sneak into the clown hotel now.”
But that’s another story.