Sweet tea may be the South’s go-to drink most of the year, but in winter, Russian Tea makes for a comforting warm-up on chilly days. As you may have noticed, though, Russian Tea has very little to do with Russia and a lot to do with Southern ingenuity. The tea takes its name from the black tea with lemon and sugar that was the preferred beverage of upper-class Russians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before becoming a Southern staple, handed down in church cookbooks for years.
As the blog Yesterdish notes, one of the earliest references for “Russian Tea” was in The New York Times in Decemeber 1882 in “an article containing advice from a doctor on how to stay hydrated while riding a tricycle recreationally.” The original recipes referred to a simple iced tea served with lemon and sometimes sugar. A 1907 edition of the San Antonio Gazette included a recipe that featured the now trademark combination of lemon, orange, sugar, and tea. Since no one can compete with a classic glass of sweet tea, though, in the South, Russian Tea became synonymous with a hot drink flavored with oranges or lemons and spiced with vanilla, rum, cinnamon, and sometimes preserved cherries.
WATCH: How To Brew The Perfect Cup Of Tea
By the mid-1960s, though, Russian Tea was certainly no longer the domain of upper class Russians and instead was being whipped up in mid-century kitchens with mid-century conveniences. A 1966 edition of the Statesville (North Carolina) Record and Landmark included a recipe that swapped loose black tea for instant and the oranges for the recently invented powdered orange drink, Tang, along with sugar and spice. Tang eventually printed its own recipe for the drink, although it was called “Hot Spiced Tea From Tang,” which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Today, Russian Tea is still a favorite in the South, served at church potlucks, book clubs, and Mason jars of the dry mix are shared at Christmastime.
Reese Witherspoon shared her grandmother’s recipe with Good Housekeeping back in 2007 and it may look fairly familiar to anyone who grew up mixing batches of the dry mix as thank-you gifts or just-because presents. The recipe is the height of simplicity, requiring nothing more than mixing together cans of instant powdered tea, Tang, and powdered lemonade, with some nutmeg and cinnamon and stored in Mason jars.
Other recipes call for a pinch of clove, swapping sugar for lemonade mix, or carefully pouring the powder into jars to create eye-catching layers. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that Russian Tea mix is best when the jars are topped with scraps of fabric, tied with a piece of ribbon, and shared with friends. To enjoy, put two scoops into your favorite mug, fill up with hot water, and sip away. “It's the most delicious thing in the world,” Witherspoon said and we think you’ll agree.
Of course, sometimes even perfection can be improved on and some people enjoy their Russian tea with a kick of good old fashioned Southern bourbon like in this spiced tea bourbon refresher recipe.