Fashion and TikTok are the well-known realms of fast-moving trend changes, but the world of booze is hardly immune to them. Each new year, season or binge-worthy television series might be the catalyst for a seemingly coordinated update to bar menus everywhere — hence the recent resurgence of espresso martinis (and 'tinis of all types) and the Negroni Sbagliato (courtesy of a TikTok interview with House of Dragons star Emma D'Arcy).
And since the 1990s are currently the focus of everything from style to web design, it's no surprise that the decade is in our drinks, too. But there's a marked difference between the temporary comeback of something that was popular in some previous era — and something that's actually new.
So, having just stepped over the threshold into the metaphorical barroom of 2023, scanning the room for something I don't recognize from a previous point in history, I zero in on an unlikely candidate: a tea bag. Or sachet, as Sayso, the company behind the product, also puts it — there's no tea in there, after all.
Instead, there's a mix of dehydrated and granulated ingredients like Pequin chilis, cinchona bark, smoked salt and crystallized orange that, when steeped in a mix of water and liquor for a few minutes, results in high-quality cocktails; no shake, stir or mixology recipe book required.
Sayso was founded in 2018 with the name Steep't, but co-founders Alison Evans and Chloe Aucoin think of the mid-2022 relaunch as the business's real starting point. The pair came up with the idea while enrolled in a Harvard Business School class called Startup Bootcamp. Or, to be more precise, it evolved from another idea they had for a mason jar-based, all-natural cocktail infusion product they'd come up with — after discovering that focus group feedback revealed that drinkers desired gratification more instant than the 24 hours that product required.
"We took those learnings and kind of combined them by sticking with the all-natural ingredients but granulating them and putting them into tea bag format to come up with a product that allows for a near-instant infusion," Evans said. In keeping with the name of their Harvard course, the two bootstrapped their way through the beginning, making the product at home and by hand. "We kind of turned our apartments into this very chaotic test kitchen where we were ordering all these ingredients and testing different things," Aucoin said.
Evans and Aucoin share a passion for food and drink, but neither of the two had experience in the spirits industry before Sayso. After finding their apartment-made recipes didn't meet their standards, the two brought on a formulator for fine-tuning, which resulted in a margarita and an old fashioned — both in a pulverized solid state, secured in a tiny sack tied to the end of a string.
The idea was well-received, and they stuck with it after graduating from HBS in 2020. Bad times turned out to be good timing — drinking, particularly at home, spiked during the pandemic, and while pre-mixed, so-called ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails had been around for years, closed bars and restaurants prodded those with a hankering to imbibe at home (or outdoors). The ready-to-drink category, which includes hard seltzer, has blown up in the years since, but you don't have to look at the data to know that you can expect to find pre-canned Jack and Coke, rum-laced kombucha or something from Finland called a Long Drink at any store selling liquor. (Even the small general store in my tiny Vermont hometown began stocking a spherical, nuclear-looking cocktail called a Buzzball.)
Knowing all that, I'm hardly surprised to find myself standing at my kitchen counter bobbing a teabag up and down in a rocks glass along with three ounces of tap water and an ounce and a half of Del Maguey mezcal from the bottle I had on the shelf. I'm expecting — and trusting — that, in a few minutes, I'll have in my hand a skinny spicy margarita.
But I do wind up surprised that the finished cocktail tastes closer to what a bartender would set in front of me than any pre-mixed drink I've sipped yet.
To be honest, I'm not a big fan of RTD cocktails. In my experience, most of them are simply-okay stand-ins for the real thing. The good ones, of which there are few, succeed only because they come close enough, or because the setting is right (I still fondly recall drinking a canned vermouth spritz while watching the Columbia River Gorge whirl by from the windows of the Amtrak Empire Builder's observation coach). Still, artificiality has always seemed to be an unavoidable tasting note.
Not so with my Sayso marg. After three minutes of steeping and the addition of ice, the drink offers no clue that it came in a pouch that was packaged and boxed and sent to me. It just tastes like a margarita, uncannily so (pun intended). Even the mocktail version — all you have to do is swap the tequila or mezcal for more water or a non-alcoholic spirit to make one — tastes great, if a little heavy on the ginger.
Could it be a fluke? I proceed to try Sayso's other sachets, which include mixes for a skinny cardamom paloma, a rosemary honey Moscow mule and a classic old fashioned. One thing about Sayso cocktails that sets them apart from RTDs is that there's a DIY element to them; you can remove the tea bag sooner for a weaker drink, for instance. In keeping with the American tea drinker stereotype, I leave the bag in when I make the paloma, and for the mule, I snip the string off with a pair of scissors and shake the drink in a jar with ice for faster dissolving and a colder cocktail.
I'd expected Sayso's cocktails to be weakly flavored, like tea can be. But again, the tea comparison is a bit of a misdirect; Evans and Aucoin explained to me that while, like tea, their infusions have whole pieces of fruit and herbs, some of the ingredients are instead granulated. So when the crystalized lime in the margarita met my tap water and mezcal, it essentially turned into lime juice.
By the time I try the old fashioned, I'm more impressed with these little bagged drinks (and, admittedly, more buzzed). I'd expected it to be the most difficult to break down into solid elements — an old fashioned is a simple cocktail, but its flavor's strength and complexity are all in its subtlety. Rehydration calls for just three-quarter ounces of water and an ounce and a half of whiskey, so it's a shorter glass, too. But I'll be damned; it's good, and I didn't even use that good of a whiskey to make it.
Bad booze could be one of the things that put a leak in Sayso's beverage-in-a-bag, since the cocktails rely on drinkers' home bottle collections. How would that marg taste if made with bottom-shelf booze, the $10-per-plastic-handle type? I suppose there's room for user error in the preparation too, but barely; the instructions are quite clear, and printed on each bag. No, Sayso's biggest hurdle might be that it requires more work than an RTD. Some will undoubtedly ask: if you're already doing some mixing and measuring, why not make an entire drink from scratch?
If Sayso's position in the middle ground between bottled and canned RTDs and something made to order is both its strength and potential weakness, then it's up to the drinker to decide which it is. For me, the answer is clear — I don't keep things like cinchona bark, gentian root or smoked salt around the house, and $3 per drink (minus the alcohol) is pretty darn affordable.
When something's brand new, it's hard to say whether it'll last for the long term or fade in a matter of months. If they were brand new today, I might gawk at ideas for tequila-laced seltzer and non-alcoholic spirits, but look at how well they've done. Perhaps three years ago I would've looked at a cocktail in a tea bag and been skeptical too. But not in 2023. Especially not after trying them for myself.