Drinks in fantastical hues of blue, violet, and pink dot our Instagram feeds these days, but that’s not a filter: it’s probably butterfly pea flower tea. A native plant in Southeast Asia, butterfly pea flowers have long been incorporated into food and drink. In the Malaysian dish nasi kerabu, the odorless flower is what tints the rice blue. In parts of Thailand, the flower petals adorn salad dishes and is often used to color dumplings. In Melbourne, the tea is sometimes offered after a Thai massage as complimentary treat, and last year, Starbucks introduced a butterfly pea lemonade cold brew in markets including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore.
In the US, butterfly pea flower has been making the rounds as a fun, experimental component in alcohol and booze-free beverages alike. The flower only grows in tropical regions, but can be purchased online in dried or powdered form, making it an easy lift for professional or home use. The Grill at Antlers Inn in Twin Peaks, CA uses it in a sparkling drink with lavender and lemon. In Atlanta, Lazy Betty infuses in their vodka-based Painted Houses cocktail.The tea’s flavor is earthy and reminiscent of green tea, but its bright blue aesthetic is what tends to pique interest. Add acid in the form of a lemon twist or shift the pH with tonic water, and the color changes to red or purple—all naturally, without the use of dyes unlike blue curaçao.
Eater asked a few bartenders for their butterfly pea flower tea suggested uses.
See more color with tonic water
At the Fox Bar and Cocktail Club, a swanky watering hole in East Nashville, beverage director Will Benedetto has been incorporating butterfly pea flower tea into his drinks for years.
WB: “Once brewed, you can add it to simple syrup or use it alone. You end up with this earthy, mushroom-like, dry-flavored tea. It’s easy to mute that with other flavors if you prefer. If you combine butterfly pea flower and tonic, you can get this dramatic color changing effect, from a blue or a violet to pink or red.”
Customers can DIY with tea on the side
WB: “We wanted to serve butterfly pea flower on the side so guests would have this interactive experience of pouring the butterfly pea flower in their cocktail, and watch it change colors in unexpected ways. The drink was called the Drunk Uncle (whiskey, Cappelletti, and basil jalapeño syrup). You got a Collins glass with a fully made cocktail in it. On the side we had a bud vase filled with clarified butterfly tea. Some people like to see what the tea does and they throw the entire beaker of butterfly pea flower in there. Others are more concerned about how it’s going to effect the flavor so they add it in a little at a time.”
Johnny Caldwell and Taneka Reaves are the whizzes behind the blog Cocktail Bandits. In addition to sharing their cocktail knowledge through events and their eponymous podcast, they co-authored Holy Spirits!, a book about Charleston’s cocktail culture. They’ve been using butterfly pea flower tea for about five years.
JC: “Once you add a citrus component to it, by squeezing lemon juice into the drink directly, for example, the color will change. We’ve also used it where we actually brew the tea and freeze it into ice cubes, so when we put it into the cocktail, as the person drinks it, the ice melts and changes colors. It also adds dilution to the cocktail and a bit of that earthiness that you get from a brewed tea.”