PHOTOGRAPHY BY SEAN MARC LEE
About a decade ago, night market vendors in Taipei began scooping salty, creamy cheese foam, made from cream cheese or cheese powder, on top of iced tea. Something of a cheesecake-cappuccino hybrid, the sweet-savory mashup was an instant hit—a worthy successor to the Taiwan-born bubble tea boom—and now it’s inspiring a global cocktail trend.
At San Diego’s Realm of the 52 Remedies, Seoul-trained bartender Chris Lee pays homage to the cluster of tea shops in the blocks surrounding the bar with his Jade Empress cocktail. “I was pretty amazed by the concept and flavor,” Lee says. “I tried it with rum, gin, and whiskey, but nothing really hit the point I wanted.” The Chinese liquor baijiu, at last, did the trick, and Lee now mixes the grain-based spirit with green tea syrup, banana liquor, and a salty cream cheese foam to make the Jade Empress.
Baijiu and cheese tea also appear as part of Chinese-American chef Jenny Dorsey’s pop-up dining experience, “Asian in America,” a six-course meal accompanied by poetry and virtual reality segments. For the Eggs and Bananas cocktail, Dorsey’s mixologist husband, Matt, combines French oak–aged baijiu, fermented black bean–Sichuan peppercorn syrup, oolong tea, Amaro Montenegro, and Lao Gan Ma chili oil, topping it all off with salted whipped cream cheese, which he calls “a substitute for the more traditional egg white.”
Closer to the delicacy’s hometown, in Shanghai, the Chic Tail Bar serves a cheese-topped cocktail called Childhood, made with passion fruit and lime. Meanwhile Union Trading Company, which ranked No. 30 on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, sometimes uses a savory parmesan-based foam in its drinks. And in Taiwan, KOR Taipei debuted two versions of the Cheeze Teaze cocktail in July: a tea-forward one with oolong-infused vodka and a smokier one with oolong-infused bourbon (pictured). Head bartender Ziyi Yang combines the base spirit with housemade jasmine-leaf syrup, bitters, soda water, and ice. For the topping, he blends milk, whipping cream, and cheese powder and then chills the mixture.
“It was an opportunity to reinterpret cheese tea into an adult version,” says Yang, who began drinking the original as a teenager. “It will hopefully remind customers of their youth.”