Ahhh, sweet tea. Refreshing, sweet and nearly everywhere in the South, it’s easy to take this ubiquitous drink for granted if you’ve grown up with it on your table for every meal. But if you’ve never thought about why sweet tea has such a presence in the South, it’s time to pour out some history on this tannic yet saccharine elixir.
While hot tea has been consumed for thousands of years by countless cultures, the iced, sugary variety that has become synonymous with the South only started showing up in Western cookbooks in the early 19th century. The rise of ice boxes and other refrigeration techniques was a necessary precursor to this delicious beverage becoming widespread.
Of course, the sweet tea we know today is quite different — in form and function — from the iced teas of the 1800s. While modern iced teas are wholesome, family-friendly beverages made from black tea leaves, early incarnations were made with green tea leaves and almost exclusively served as alcoholic punches at fancy parties.
What exactly did these green tea punches entail? One recipe, published in Lettice Bryan’s 1839 book The Kentucky Housewife, calls for combining a “very strong tea” with loads of sugar and sweet cream. “Then stir in gradually a bottle of claret [wine] or Champagne,” wrote Bryan. After boiling the final mix, she says that you can serve it immediately or “you may send it ‘round entirely cold in glass cups.”
Despite its unabashedly boozy roots, a combination of societal changes soon transformed the drink forever. First, green tea leaves were replaced with black tea leaves as increased importation from India, Africa and South America in the early 20th century made the darker varieties a more economical choice.
Second, advances in refrigeration technology made chilled drinks accessible to more people. Iced beverages went from a rare treat reserved for the rich to a common staple at family dinner tables.
Finally, Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920. Although alcohol became scarce after the federal government’s ban, the desire for refreshing sweet tea concoctions remained — even if that meant they would be consumed as glorified “mocktails.” After Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the fondness for non-alcoholic sweet tea remained a steady fixture of Southern life.
Of course, global trade, widespread refrigeration and Prohibition affected many aspects of U.S. culture. So how, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, did iced tea become the “house wine of the South?”
The South is hot — swelteringly so. The moment icy beverages became available in the dead of summer, Southerners clutched on tight and never let go. Whether you’re spending hours laboring in the hot sun or wilting in the relentless humidity of a pre-air-conditioning-era home, there’s nothing more satisfying than gulping down a tall, icy glass of sweet tea.
The drink’s overwhelming popularity below the Mason-Dixon Line also has a lot to do with the the South — specifically South Carolina — becoming home to a thriving tea-growing industry. This agricultural proximity made the beverage cheaper and easier to come by than it was when tea leaves were imported from half a world away. To this day, South Carolina remains the only U.S. state that commercially produces tea on a mass-market scale.
Clearly, iced tea has had quite a journey. But aside from the gradual switch from green to black tea leaves, the basic formula for homemade sweet tea has remained the same.
It’s simple and easy: (1) steep a strong batch of hot tea, (2) mix in sugar (to taste) until well dissolved, (3) chill your pitcher in refrigerator, and (4) serve the cold tea in tall glasses over ice. To give the drink a little something extra, you can squeeze in lemon juice or add muddled mint leaves.
You can’t go wrong with this classic, non-alcoholic recipe. Although, if you’re suddenly feeling inspired by the history of this Southern standby, we can help there, too. Enjoy this delightful marriage of two of the South’s signature drinks: sweet tea and the mint julep.
While traditional mint juleps can be too intense for some palates, adding sweet tea to the equation ensures a smoother experience, all while preserving the signature aromatics of bourbon and mint. This drink is a natural fit for any rip-roaring Kentucky Derby party or 1920s speakeasy-themed soiree. Just follow the recipe and whip up a batch for your next front porch hangout.
Sweet Tea Mint Julep
6 cups water
1 cup sugar
10 mint leaves
3 family-size black tea bags or 12 individual black tea bags
1 1/2 cups bourbon
In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of the water to a boil with the sugar. Cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat. Add the mint leaves and tea bags, dunking the tea bags in and out of the water a few times to ensure they are fully saturated. Steep for 5 minutes.
Discard the mint and tea bags, then stir in the remaining 2 cups cold water. Refrigerate until chilled.
Stir in the bourbon, pour the mixture into highball glasses filled with ice, garnish with lemon and mint, and serve.