To a Tea

The story of famous tea blenders such as Johnnie Walker, James Chivas and Arthur Bell making the transition from working with tea leaves to stocks of whisky is well known. SMWS member Médéric Hauchard has made a journey in the opposite direction, from spirits and whisky to the world of single batch teas, as he explains to Richard Goslan


Lalani & Co source single-batch teas from individual estates across the world

Whatever he turns his attention to, Médéric Hauchard's approach is defined by one simple concept: how does he bring people together?

And in a career devoted to exploring and understanding a wide world of food and drink, this SMWS member keeps returning to that defining principle.

“Sharing is the most important thing for me,” says Médéric. “I like human interaction, and that’s the common point we all have, we all drink and we all eat. So if it’s not wine, it could be whisky; if it’s not whisky, it could be tea; if it’s not tea, it could be infusions. If you want to bring people together, dress up the table, drop some epicurean food and drinks representing their soul and terroir in the middle, and there we go! That’s why I’ve been a little bit everywhere.”

A little bit everywhere for Médéric means a career encompassing experience around the world as a sommelier, a winemaker, whisky club founder and tutor – where he was involved with the Society’s Members’ Room at 19 Greville Street in London – and now a single-batch tea specialist, working in London with Lalani & Co. The family-run company specialises in sourcing small-batch teas from individual estates. Much like a single cask Society bottling, each jar comes with information about the region, producer, seasonality and varietal of the tea plant used and how each batch was made.

“When I first met [company founder and director] Jameel Lalani I realised that single batch tea is exactly like single cask whisky,” says Médéric. “Single batch means it comes from one country, one sub-region, one single garden, one vintage, and one season at the time. And like a single cask, we’ll have that batch number on the jar.”

To be called tea – as opposed to an infusion – the drink has to come from the camellia plant.

Although there are around 300 varieties of camellia, only two are suitable for making tea: the camellia sinensis sinensis with its origin in China and the camellia sinensis assamica from north east India.

From those two plants come the varieties of tea we most commonly see, created by different processes relating to the level of oxidation the leaves are exposed to.

“In a gastronomic approach, single batch teas are, in a way, very much like wine and spirits with champagne, whites, reds and rosés,” explains Médéric.

“White teas can demonstrate as much finesse and depth as vintage champagnes. Green teas can easily replace a peated whisky, a riesling from Alsace, or chenin blanc from the Loire Valley.

“Some black teas will surprise your palate in the same way as a vintage Frapin cognac, The Macallan 12-year-old sherry cask, or even some barolo or red burgundy wines.

“A single-batch Taiwanese oolong, aged in clay jars for decades, will take you on a journey to the finest noble eaux-de-vie hiding in every Cognac family’s estate reserve or the warehouses in Scotland seasoning their stocks of well-aged whiskies.”

Médéric Hauchard, photographed by Marie de Chesse

But seasonality is also essential in defining a tea’s character, with the specific ‘flush’ – the time of year that the leaves were plucked – having a role in its flavour profile.

“A first flush tea is going to come from the baby leaves flushing in spring, and the tea will be lighter and more elegant, often fruity and floral with low tannin,” says Médéric.

“The second flush in May and June will have a more malty character, sometimes with ‘muscatel’ notes with honey, or the lightest marmalade. Then in July and August it’s the monsoon, and with rain we don’t have concentration or the complexity. But in autumn the speed of the plant’s growth reduces massively as it approaches its winter dormancy, so the quality increases again.”

Whatever its characteristics, for Médéric the same principles apply in choosing what tea to drink as he would consider with his whisky – it’s all about the context and situation you’re in.

“Are you looking for an aperitif to set your palate, or an after-dinner drink with a cigar pairing?

“What’s the best drink to have when sitting next to the fireplace on a Sunday afternoon reading your book? Are you interested in pairing your main course, desserts or cheese board selection? Just give me a call!” he says. “As an example, take Kyushu in Japan and Islay in Scotland: a smoky Islay whisky like Laphroaig 10-year-old cask strength is going to pair beautifully with seafood or shellfish. For me, a Japanese green tea like a Kabusecha from Kagoshima is also an ideal pairing for oysters; we have done it a lot with my friend James [Bowles], the man behind Oyster Meister. These tea gardens and whisky share some DNA, ageing or growing from places that face the ocean with similar conditions and aroma profiles.”

The ceremony of tea drinking is famously celebrated in different cultures, with the elaborate matcha green tea ceremony in Japan and the gongfu ceremonies in China and Taiwan. In the UK – and still in many traditional distilleries – the passage of the day is often marked with a time for a communal tea break. But however we take our tea, it always comes back to Médéric’s principle of celebrating a shared experience.

“It is all about sharing,” he says. “People gather together, sharing their own tasting notes whether it’s tea or whisky in our glass: ‘Oh, this aroma reminds me of my grandma’s apple tart…’. Telling stories, exchanging ideas and good personal tips; this has always been the best way to start a new friendship with someone, hasn’t it? As we say: there aren’t any great stories that start with ‘There were two people eating a green salad…’!”