One of the healthiest aspects of my personality is my deep and constant love for tea: always loose, preferably a nice Phoenix or Wuyi oolong, and ideally from independent tea rooms who cultivate direct relationships with individual farmers. (Beneath all those tattoos, that foul mouth, and that heavy metal lurks a quiet, soft-spoken girl who often loves nothing more than a good cup of tea). It’s a very enjoyable hobby, with plenty of room for exploration, appreciation, and discovery, but it’s also quite low-key. Real tea heads can tell you all about cha qi, the elusive, euphoric surge of energy an experienced drinker can channel when a particularly magical tea hits the mark. But even diving into a stash of the rarest, most lovingly aged pu’erh still isn’t exactly a high-octane ride. That’s one of the things I love the most about it – at the end of the day (and at the bottom of a cup) it’s really just leaves and vibrations.
When I found a pass for this year’s World Tea Expo, I expected it to be a reasonably relaxing experience and found it more than a little ironic that it was taking place at Vegas of all places. My main goal was to gain new knowledge about tea, see if there were any interesting product developments on the horizon, and grab as many free samples as possible. Visions of nice old folks peddling cozy herbal concoctions and good-natured international tea vendors danced through my head as I made my way to the entrance to the south concourse of the convention center and saw a gigantic banner stretching out on the double doors: BAR AND RESTAURANT EXPO 2022. I knew I was still in the right place because a small green sign advertising the World Tea Expo was hidden below, but once I entered and I found myself subsumed in the massive crowd waiting to enter the exhibit hall itself, I realized I was in for a very different afternoon.
This was the first in-person Tea Expo exhibit since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and expo veterans tell me it has been scaled back significantly; as a result, the two events had been combined in the same cavernous room. To reach the tea section, I had to make my way through an intimidating thicket of restaurant machinery, high-end bar ware, mysterious displays of restaurant payroll “solutions,” and stand after stand of luxury brands. ‘alcohol. It was the latter that worried me the most, because well… I was left unsupervised and by the time I exhausted the possibilities of the tea department, I had had a parcel of caffeine, and started to feel squirrely.
Tasting the strangest spirits at Bar & Restaurant Expo 2022
My mother raised me to appreciate the finer things in life, by which I mean I was taught from an early age that free samples are valuable and almost always mandatory. For his part, my father taught me to drink whiskey, and that even the biggest rotgut has its charms. Armed with this ancestral knowledge, I focused my attentions on the whiskey family, starting the most chaotic part of the day with a sip of The New Ole Smokey Moonshine “moonlight” habanero mango (if it’s not illegal, it’s not exactly brilliant, but I wasn’t there to quibble). It was surprisingly delicious, with a nice hint of heat and a pleasantly fruity aftertaste.
Emboldened, I wandered over to Howler Head’s scorching orange and yellow retina display, which included a life-size cutout of a UFC brolic fighter and a group of bros huddled around a punching bag machine (apparently , they are the official flavored whiskey partner of the UFC). Their take on flavored whiskey, which sees them infusing generic Straight Kentucky Bourbon with “Natural Banana Flavor” is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen and, inexplicably, one of the tastiest. It really was like drinking a Now & Later banana that just warmed your throat on the way down. I’m not too proud to admit that I asked for seconds and punched the punching bag as well (I’m not a pro, but I scored higher than the two guys who m preceded, which I celebrated by trotting to sniff out other alcohol-related offences).
This section was brimming with potential, but the piece de resistance came straight out of Austin, Texas in the form of truly indescribable horror: Kurvball Barbecue Whiskey. After spending a few long minutes in line to try an ‘old fashioned BBQ’, I realized the bartender was scanning people’s event badges and freaked out – I wasn’t quite made sure what the rules were about double-dipping between expos, and I hate giving up my own drinking crimes, I fled to a quieter side of their giant vertical bar. There I chatted with another very nice bartender about what made this whiskey a “barbecue”. I had assumed it was something to do with the actual process, and started babbling over the charcoal and scotch until the poor guy stopped me and said softly, “C is barbecue…flavored. Horror-stricken but trapped by politeness, I took the offered plastic cup and retrieved a liquid lie that sent me spiraling down a strange mesquite-smoky valley. It had no taste wrong; it tasted exactly like a barbeque flavored whiskey which freaked me out so much. It’s probably great in cocktails and various beefy situations, but…it’s just not right.
At the time, I was feeling a little toasty, and I had made it my mission to seek out the most aggressive, weirdest, or most unexpected liquors I could, kinda. I was soon richly rewarded. On my way back to the tea section, I stopped at the Tea Bar and tried a cup of their Signature cocktail “Ball of tea”which was made with Beattie potato vodka, blood orange juice and some kind of evil lemonade, and was way more bitter than anything daytime orange has to do.
A good tea cocktail can be a beautiful thing, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t more crossover between the two camps; people in the bar and restaurant completely ignored the tea section, while people in tea valiantly tried to ignore the techno music and errant bubbles of smoke drifting from the bar area. (However, I saw more than a few tea-lovers in the liquor lines!) The Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey stand’s intermittent swirling shows of fire did little to quell the dissonance, and I don’t. Haven’t felt it necessary to sample their wares because I was a college student in the early 2000s, and I know better.
I stopped by the Middle West Spirits stand because, well, they looked normal, and I needed to weed out some of the more offensive flavors I had just absorbed. I tried their bourbon sherry finish and pumpernickel ryewho were both very nice, but I was attracted to their Bourbon Cream liquor. The concept wasn’t that weird, but I had never had a cream liqueur before and I felt lucky. The drink itself was sort of one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted, like the melted bourbon vanilla ice cream (turns out the Ohio-based company actually collaborated with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams). I was pretty lost at the time so your own mileage may vary, but keep in mind this is from a whiskey snob.
Then, a few cabins further, I spotted what must surely be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language: “Enriched alcoholic sorbet.” A smiling woman threw me a small cup of their Bourbon berry sorbet (5% alcohol by volume, yowza!) and it was perfect; the sorbet itself was surprisingly smooth and rich (think Haagen Dazs raspberry sorbet, but full of booze). I was so happy that I almost forgot how many different types of alcohol were happily mixing together in my 34-year-old stomach.
Last Call at the Las Vegas Beverage Show
It all went severely downhill from there. I tried some kind of semi-cursed non-alcoholic herbal Tom Collins, various other cream liqueurs (mango labor, coffee…huh) and a few other unimpressive bourbons. Towards the bitter end, I found myself quadruple fisting two different tequila cocktails (one had hibiscus, the other was…blue?) plus two shots of tea-flavored vodka (one made with green tea, which was vegetable in the wrong way, and one that was made with white tea, which was transcendent) which really tied the whole experience together. I’m not one to waste a drink, but by then I had pretty much given up. The last cabin before the exit belonged to Captain Morgan, an old enemy; I nearly outgrew that rat bastard, but spotted one last challenge. A sip of that Vanilla Cherry Spiced Rum, however, and I was done; the extremely artificial sweetness and sickly high notes of the toilet bowl cleaner were just too much to bear.
I tossed the leftovers in the trash as I stumbled through the unforgiving Nevada sun, clutching my little bag of tea samples (success!). Eyes cloudy and tormented, I began to walk towards the nearest restaurant, hoping to absorb my sins and ward off the daytime hangover that was already beginning to be felt. This walk took me past the famous Circus Circus casino, and the last text I remember sending that day was to my friend Rupa. All he said was, “I’ll try to sneak into the clown hotel now.”
But this is another story.