Sri Lanka’s Dilmah shakes a cocktail with Ceylon tea

March 01, 2007 (LBO) – At the Water’s Edge in Battaramulla on a humid Monday evening, tea drinkers and cocktail fans find common ground ranging from chivas regal to green tea. Here in this upmarket golf club house, six kilometers from Colombo city, tea-tenders are busy dreaming up concoctions to serve up tea in variations that, well, are not meant for teetotalers.

The specialties here are tea-infused vodkas, gins, tequilas and bourbons, twisted with Coca-Cola, lime juice, lemonade, fresh juices, herbs, various tea flavours, shaken and stirred into exotic varieties of Mar-TEA-nis.

‘Spiked tea’, is still a virgin territory for Sri Lanka, but for Asians, Europeans and Americans, tea cocktails now appear more frequently on the drinks menue. Dedicated T-bars now dot western capitals, patronized by young adults who seek a different taste from this centuries old beverage.

“For years, tea has been thought of as an old fashion drink,” says Dilhan C. Fernando, Director, of MJF Group – which owns one of Sri Lanka’s most successful tea brands, Dilmah.

“Not anymore. People who know “Ceylon Tea” are much older and not the biggest buyers anymore. We have to keep re-inventing our marketing campaigns, tweak strategies giving tea a different twist to keep this beverage alive and fresh,” Fernando said.

Sri Lankans brought up on a traditional diet of kahata (extra strong) tea laced with extra milk and lots of sugar, usually associate the beverage with china cups and saucers.

Few years back, Dilmah introduced a t-bar in Colombo adding snifters, tumblers, martini glasses to the traditional teaware to give tea lovers a different twist.

“But we had to relocate the bar to our office, after people wrote and protested saying we were diluting, corrupting young minds or giving the wrong impression about tea,” laughs Fernando.

However, as the coffee generation gets stronger and multinational tea brands continue to grow their brands off the poor backs of illiterate tea pluckers, the family owned MJF Group is betting its hard earned dollars to popularize cocktails laced with tea.

“It takes off on our trendy t-bar, the gourmet watte series, which is our answer to exclusive wines,” explains Merrill J Fernando, Chairman MJF Group, Dilmah’s Founder.

To celebrate the art of tea making, Dilmah has roped in the Chef’s Guild of Sri Lanka and the World Association of Chefs Societies, to organize an international tea sommelier competition across 17 countries.

“The competition is aimed at showcasing skills and creativity, using Ceylon tea to produce a cocktail, mocktail (non-alcoholic) and a traditional hot beverage,” says President of the Chef’s Guild, Gerard Mendis.

Twenty five Sri Lankans from top hotels took part in the Colombo leg here at Water’s Edge, which concluded on Monday, with the winner booking a berth in the Asia Pacific finals to be held in March.

One burnt a kettle in the excitement, another dropped his tumblers while flairing, during the mostly male dominated Sri Lankan competition that was won by 24-year old fine dining restaurant captain Jeewanthi Adhikari of the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo.

“Tea is about subtlety of flavor, and so the cocktails you make with your infused spirits should be of a similar nature, favoring fewer, lighter ingredients over the typical lemon- or lime-juice backbone of most cocktails,” explains Adhikari.

“An average person brews tea for about 37 seconds. But what we are hoping to bring out through competitions like this is that tea is not just tea,” says Dilhan Fernando.

“Tea has its own style. There are five to six thousand different shades of tea. We want to show the world that you can be creative and use it for celebrations like we serve wine.”

Anyone for a mar-tea-ni now?