If there’s ever been a less likely ingredient for a cocktail than “garbage tea,” I haven’t heard it. But when it’s on a list from Nahiel Nazzal, bar director and partner of Pearl in San Francisco’s Richmond District, it’s not just an odd-sounding element of a drink—it unlocks an entire family history.
It appears in a brilliant cocktail called the “Coastal Scrub”—gin, the grapefruit liqueur pamplemousse, dry vermouth, honey, and lime. Bright, lively, ginny; all standard-issue, up to this point. And then, the wild card: “Garbage tea” tincture—made from the combination of chamomile, anise, cinnamon, sage, and mint.
As one component of a cocktail, it’s an array of flavors that ranges from fresh to earthy, rooty to aromatic. Like a spice cabinet coming together. And in a sense, that’s what it is—a replication of a drink, and an aroma that Nazzal associates with her childhood.
“‘Garbage tea’ is the tea that my grandmother and my aunts have always made, ever since I can remember,” explains Nazzal, a San Francisco native from a Palestinian family. “It takes me back in time.”
So why is it called “garbage” tea? The beverage was a little bit of … everything. “In Arab culture tea is always something that you serve after a meal,” says Nazzal. “After every lunch or dinner. And, in my family’s case, it would be everything you’d find in the cupboard.”
After every meal, bits of herbs and spices were thrown into a pot with boiling water and steeped until flavorful and aromatic. “You’d literally throw it all in, and make a tea of sorts,” says Nazzal. “And because it was whatever they had around, we called it garbage tea.”
Sometimes, there was, in fact, tea in there—“There could be black tea, there could be chamomile tea. Whatever was available.” Other times? Not at all.
“In Arab culture,” says Nazzal, “tea can be a bunch of different things.” In Morocco, for instance, there’s the ubiquitous mint tea, aromatic and often powerfully sweet. “You see sage used often, in tea. It could be black tea and sage steeped together.” And “having tea” was really about the act, as much as the tea itself. “If you’re offered tea, it could be coffee and tea, and you get double-dosed with hot liquids.”
So the flavors of her family’s own “tea” echoed those of an Arab household, she says. What you’d find might include the herbaceous sage and mint, more substantial cinnamon and anise—“All things you’d use for cooking or baking.” But, thanks to its impromptu nature, the drink varied every time, a beautiful repurposing of so much that could be in a meal.
Bizarrely, Nazzal says, no matter what incarnation garbage tea took, the effect remained constant. “For some reason, it always tasted the same,” she says. “Maybe part of that is just nostalgia. But it was always so good.”
That was the tea, as fixed in her childhood memories. Once she was old enough to create it herself, Nazzal looked a bit deeper into its components. “When I started making it, I’d call my aunts and say—but what actually is it?”
Their method? Put some cinnamon and some anise in a pot with water. Heat it up. And go from there. Somehow, everything after that, no matter what she’d toss in the pot, just came together. Garbage tea: Always different, yet always the same.
As an adult, Nazzal kept the tradition going. Her longtime boyfriend, also a bartender, became a convert. “He got into the whole culture and the idea of it. He’d always say, ‘Let’s make more garbage tea!’” And he encouraged Nazzal to turn the flavors into a tincture to use behind the bar—capturing those flavors and aromatics in a way that could translate to a cocktail.
It’s a slightly more involved process than just tossing herbs into a pot. Nazzal uses every different component she’d make “garbage tea” with in her tincture. She steeps each of five elements—chamomile, anise, cinnamon, sage, and mint—separately into high-proof spirit, allowing them to extract at their own rates. From there, she blends the elements together to pinpoint the best balance.
“What’s funny is I didn’t really blend it to taste,” she says. “I blended it to smell. The intention of the cocktail is to bring the aromatics of the tea to the drink. And it worked out.”
As for the cocktail itself, the layers of herb and spice lend depth and complexity to an otherwise lively, bright drink, contributing an earthy backbone that sets the cocktail apart. Tasting before knowing its backstory, I had a hunch that anise and sage were involved—but couldn’t have pinpointed the other elements. It was an intriguing melange of spice whose real components were elusive. Which is a great quality in a cocktail: When it keeps you guessing, take another sip.
Of course, chefs waxing nostalgic on their upbringing and its influence on their culinary style—this auntie’s dumplings, that nonna’s meatballs—are ubiquitous. Bartenders? Not so much; cocktails are unlikely to figure in childhood memories. (At least not in the same way.)
But, as Nazzal points out, the confluence of culinary and cocktail culture means that flavors can reemerge in unexpected ways. “You’re seeing such great cocktail bars in restaurants, now. Ingredients from the kitchen make their way to the bar.”
And in San Francisco, at least, she sees the bar community becoming more diverse, as well. “You’ll see different fruits that people grew up with, appearing in cocktails,” she says. “Bartenders of a Filipino background using calamansi. Dyafa, in Oakland, uses various ingredients from Arab cuisine in cocktails. So much from a bartender’s background can show up in drinks, whether it’s subtle or whether it’s much more obvious.”
And while she never expected a family tradition to inspire a cocktail, it’s not entirely a surprise, either. “All of our influences come from memory,” she says. “You might not even realize that your subconscious might have to do what you’re creating on the table. Or in a glass, or on a plate.”
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