Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Why Bartenders Love Chicago's Rare Tea Cellar

It’s where top bar pros shop for star ingredients.

Garnishing a Sea Flower cocktail at Kumiko in Chicago.
Garnishing a Sea Flower cocktail at Kumiko in Chicago. Image:

Kumiko

“The funny thing about Rare Tea Cellar, it’s kind of like that Mike Tyson quote: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” says Kyle Smith, the head bartender at Chicago’s Etta. While no one is actually getting smacked in the face at Rare Tea’s lab/emporium, Smith says it's impossible to anticipate what products he’ll bring back for Etta’s bar program after a visit to the store. “I always go in with an idea that I want to use certain ingredients in drinks, but when you see what they have in their ridiculous inventory of fun, you get punched in the face with new ideas and flavor combinations.”

Rare Tea Cellar is the product of nearly three decades of obsessive global sourcing by Rodrick Markus, the store’s owner, who has amassed an inventory of 2,000 teas (including 600 vintages and types of pu-erh tea) and 6,000 ingredients, from koji to cardoon honey, magnolia-infused cane syrup, and freeze-dried yuzu flakes. 

Julia Momose, a Chicago bartender and the owner of Kumiko, once accompanied Markus to Japan for a buying trip and sat in on meetings with potential producers. “As we were sitting there talking to folks, he would ask every person, ‘What is the rarest, most unique thing you have? I don’t care what the price is. I want to bring the best possible, most exciting things back to my clients,’” she recalls. 

Tea at Rare Tea Cellar
Tea at Rare Tea Cellar.

Rare Tea Cellar

Specific Selections

To determine which products make the final Rare Tea cut, Markus, a tea blender by trade, often steeps them in hot water—peppercorns, spices, dried fruit, and all. “How ingredients transfer to beverages or gourmet food has always fascinated me,” he says. “If something makes a great infusion, it will make an epic cocktail ingredient.” 

Take, for instance, dried wild bananas from Thailand, the “most profound banana” he’s ever tasted. “It’s the first dried banana we’ve found that with hot water will turn into the best banana beverage you’ve ever had,” says Markus, whose approach ensures every Rare Tea product is ready and waiting to find a home in a cocktail. 

Markus ships his products to bartenders and chefs as far afield as Japan, China, Sri Lanka, India, and Dubai, and home bartenders can find his best-of products online. But professionals in Chicago, Rare Tea’s home base, have special by-appointment-only access to his tasting room and lab. 

Markus packs in about one-third of his inventory into a space the size of two bodegas, and everything is open and ready to taste and smell. “It’s so magical. There are jars lining the walls, filled with things you’ve never heard of before,” says Stephanie Andrews, the beverage director at Billy Sunday in Chicago. “It’s like a candy store for chefs and bartenders.” 

There are the actual teas, of course, that are “so layered and nuanced, they can turn a cocktail around,” according to Andrews, who uses Gingerbread Dream Rooibos in toddies and Whiskey Sour riffs. 

Remedy, a spirit-free cocktail at Kumiko, including kinmokusei from Rare Tea Cellar.
Remedy, a spirit-free cocktail at Kumiko, which includes kinmokusei from Rare Tea Cellar.

Sammy Faze Photography

Momose is a fan of Freak of Nature Oolong and Emperor’s Chamomile. She’s also currently buying Kinmokusei, or osmanthus blossoms, that she remembers from her childhood in Japan. “They bloom in September and October and will scent an entire block with the aroma of honeysuckle,” she says. “They’re brilliant as a tisane, in spirit-free drinks, and in cocktails.” 

She splurges on special ingredients—and stretches them. At Kumiko, she garnished a barley shochu and sake Martini with speared wakamomo, or tiny, pitless peaches preserved in syrup. They’re $60 for a half-kilo. “Everyone is super-surprised by the garnish,” she says. “They think it’s an olive. It’s a kind of mind-bending ingredient.”

Momose also saved the wakamomo syrup, and once the fruit was all used up, she started workshopping drinks to highlight the sweet and peachy byproduct. Candidates include a Yamazaki 12 Year highball with a splash of peach syrup, an Old Fashioned with barley shochu, and a refreshing Japanese whiskey cocktail with allspice dram and citrus.

Anything-but-Basic Basics

Even the pedestrian-sounding categories of salt and sugar have incredible depth at Rare Tea. Andrews buys Murray River salt, smoked salt, and black Hawaiian sea salt for her drinks. “Salt in a cocktail is so underrated. When you’re trying to hit a balance in drink between sweet and sour, salt is actually something that ties it all together,” says Andrews, who also sources dark Okinawan sugar, naturally rich in calcium and iron, to add a molasses character to Daiquiris and Old Fashioneds. 

Other ingredient categories of note include truffles (including house truffle bitters), honey (95 varieties), citrus peels, verjus, syrups, fruit vinegars made in France (aka shrubs), vanilla, house amaro and vermouth, spices, and freeze-dried and powdered everything. 

Twenty years ago, when Markus first started buying freeze-dried ingredients and powders made by former NASA scientists, he says his clients were among the first people who actually ate the stuff—the others were stocking up for nuclear disaster. “Now the machinery is so advanced, you can take any product and turn it into a powder that’s incredible,” he says. 

Particularly popular in Chicago are his cheese powders, coming in blue cheese, cream cheese, parmesan, white and orange cheddar, and feta varieties. Billy Sunday dusts its house popcorn in Rare Tea Cellar powdered cheese, and Smith is developing an elote-inspired cocktail for the fall with Nixta corn liqueur, tequila, mezcal, Tajín, and powdered parmesan and white cheddar.

At $25 per pound, Markus’ cheese powders cost two-and-a-half to four times more than those from wholesale competitors, but Smith says they’re worth it. “The stuff you find at Rare Tea is so impactful,” he says. “I’ll use two to three ingredients on each menu, and those things turn drinks into ‘Oh wow,’ the stars of the show.”