Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Vintage Oolong: One Haute Cup of Tea

Oolong is a semi-oxidized variety of Camellia sinensis that falls in between the green and black family of teas. It is known as a digestive and is commonly served at the end of a meal in Chinese restaurants. Tie Guan Yin is a type of Oolong with an interesting pedigree; it is connected to the bodhisattva of compassion in the Buddhist pantheon of deities.

The attribute of mercy was particularly important to the goddess Guan Yin. She was keenly aware that sickness, aging and death are unavoidable in this life and in one story is said to have introduced the tea plant to a farmer who tended a dilapidated temple that was dedicated to her. Guan Yin pointed out a tea bush and prescribed the method of infusion to the farmer. He then went on to introduce tea to his people. The name of the tea, translated from Chinese to English, is "Iron Goddess of Mercy". If you've ever reached for this tea after a night of overindulgent feasting then you've experienced the promise implied in its name.

Vintage Oolongs, historically the drink of  royalty and the elite, are making their way into the offerings of reputable tea purveyors in the United States. They are far more complex than first grade Oolongs which produce amber-hued infusions that are mildly astringent and redolent of chestnuts. 20 Year Aged Oolong from Radiance Tea House & Books in New York City is an impeccable example of what proper aging of a good Oolong tea can do. The process involves roasting the moisture from the tea (typically yearly) until the desired time has passed to achieve a proper vintage. The resulting brew is best appreciated in slow and mindful sips.

Radiance Tea 20 Year Aged Oolong produces a ruby-colored liquor that begins with smokey fruity floral notes and transitions into chestnut nuanced with spice. What happens next is sublime and provocative; a bouquet of cinnamon, coconut, raisin and plum unfurl with a wisp of caramelized chocolate weaving between the appearance of these distinctive flavors.

In the world of taste vintage teas are no different than other aged food products like wine and cheese. Increased trade with China and an intense interest in the health benefits of antioxidants derived from tea will result in wider availability of vintage teas, despite their high cost. Glass Petal Smoke believes that this growth will be driven by chefs, mixologists and specialty tea bars in the coming decade.


The tea painting in this post is the work of Diane Root, daughter of food writer Waverley Root. Diane Root is a painter and an editor. In 2008 she wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine about having lunch with Picasso as a young girl. It is infused with her creative spirit and trademark joie de vivre.

The 20 Year Aged Oolong from Radiance Tea House & Books sells for $30 an ounce. Other aged teas are available, including a delightful 10 Year Aged Tie Guan Yin. Radiance Tea House & Books is located at 158 West 55th Street, between 6th & 7th Avenue, in New York City. 212-217-0442

Upton Tea, which sells a broad range of Oolong teas, has a wonderful page dedicated to explaining the different types of tea and how they are produced. It's a terrific primer for the budding tea enthusiast. If you are a green Oolong fan, their selection of Formosa Oolongs are superb. Spring Dragon is a Glass Petal Smoke favorite. 800-234-8327

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Eye on Scent Culture: Aliage by Estée Lauder

Leaves take all kinds of strange shapes, as if to invite us to examine them. Star-shaped, heart-shaped, spear-shaped, arrow-shaped, fretted, fringed, cleft, furrowed, serrated, sinuated; in whorls, in tufts, in spires, in wreaths endlessly expressive, deceptive, fantastic, never the same from footstalk to blossom; they seem perpetually to tempt our watchfulness, and take delight in outstripping our wonder.—John Ruskin

The universe is very clever at orchestrating wonder when we least expect it. For Estée Lauder, one of those moments occurred during her travels. “I’d picked up a green leaf in Palm Beach one day, deeply inhaled its scent with wonder, and knew I had to recreate that scent.” The resulting fragrance was Aliage, a timeless green chypre released in 1972 that continues to inspire.

Estée Lauder
Estée Lauder was driven by the desire to create a sporty scent that was sophisticated without being overwhelming; a fragrance befitting the tennis court and the gym. The concept was clear, but the execution was decidedly complex, resulting in a formula that included over 300 ingredients. The fragrance pyramid for Aliage varies slightly, depending on the source. In Fabulous Fragrances II author Jan Moran provides these key notes: Greens, Peach and Citrus in the top, Jasmine, Rosewood, Pine and Thyme in the heart, and Oakmoss, Musk, Vetiver and Myrrh in the base.

Karyn Khoury of Estée Lauder
Shortly after Aliage was released two women fell in love with the same fragrance. It has led each of them on an enduring path. Aliage was the first fragrance of  Karyn Khoury, who cherished the scent in body lotion form. Khoury later studied fragrance creation under the tutelage of Estée Lauder and is Senior Vice President, Corporate Fragrance Development Worldwide for The Estée Lauder Companies. Jane Shanky Taylor, a teenager living in Queens, New York, was searching for a fragrance to suit her lifestyle and was compelled by Aliage. The fragrance was not foisted on her at-counter; instead Jane chose to follow in the footsteps of her mother, an Aliage aficionado. (This influence is sometimes ignored by marketers as it doesn’t smack of teenage rebellion). Decades later Aliage is still Jane’s perfume of choice. “People always ask me what I’m wearing and I’m always amazed. Aliage doesn’t feel like a fragrance to me; it feels like a part of me, a part of my life.”

Aliage: A sporty fragrance for women
Estée Lauder created Aliage to meet the needs of modern, independent women who bought their own fragrance, women who, “…were tired of the standard perfumes of their mother’s generation, the tired familiar names of fragrances made for a generation of women who blue-rinsed their gray hair and had croquignole waves etched into their scalps.” The fact that Jane embraced the scent her mother wore says a lot about the cultural shift sensed by Mrs. Lauder, who transformed the 1970's archetype of the "liberated woman" and actualized it in a perfume. It also says a lot about the way people respond to their sense of smell. Chypres can be highly animalic and resinous despite the presence of fruits and florals in the formula. The addition of fresh green notes infuses Aliage with a timeless quality that tempers its classic pedigree and  lends buoyancy.

Jane Shanky Taylor
Aliage is a niche player in The Estée Lauder Companies' portfolio of fragrances. It's not always displayed at counter, but a simple request will allow one to procure this timeless treasure. “The fact that someone has to get it for me makes the purchase feel special,” says Jane “but it also makes me nervous about whether or not it will be at counter the next time I'm there. I hope they never stop making it.”


Lauder, Estée. Estée: A Success Story. New York: Random House, 1985, p.90.

Leaves in Myth, Magic and Medicine was published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 1997. Author Alice Thoms Vitale, a librarian, completed the book when she was in her nineties and describes it as an "historical herbal". Its pages are filled with Ms. Vitale's delicate autoprints of leaves as well as interesting folklore. If you possess Estée Lauder's affinity for nature you will find inspiration in its pages. The book is out of print, but worth seeking from reputable dealers.