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Sip of Summer

A Southerner returns home from the North and brings her tea punch with her.

by Erin Z. Bass

When Leslie McKinney Bass moved to Chicago from Nashville 22 years ago, she had no idea she’d miss the South so much. Blues music and the sounds of banjo and harmonica drifting from the city’s streets helped to ease her homesickness, but “I always longed for home and whenever I heard that music, there was a sense of place, sky, water, seasons,” she says. “I missed that romantic part of being in the South.”

It was a recipe passed down from her grandmother that gave Bass a way to “sip her blues away.” With a base of lime and orange juice, tea punch was a staple in the Bass family. “We would have Sunday lunch at my grandmother’s after church and we always drank it there,” Bass says. “I think I was, out of my four sisters, the one that gulped it down the most because I really liked all that sugar in there.”

While grandmother Polly had her own guarded recipe for the punch, so did her friends and neighbors. In Nashville, tea punch was served all over town. “Our national bank had something like that and we all called it “Bank Tea,” says Bass, “and then we would also drink it at sporting and hunting events, steeplechase races, tailgate parties, and it was always served at luncheons.”

The drink eventually found its way into local bars, where Bass says it was enhanced with various spirits. Recognizing the versatility of tea punch, she began experimenting with the family recipe in Chicago and selling her version at farmers’ markets. “I made it on my own for about three years and it just got to be so time consuming and the demand was just too much for me, so I decided to take it as a year-round product instead of a seasonal product,” she explains.

That’s how Delta Blues Iced Tea Co. was born in 2001. Bass found a co-packer and product developer who used her recipe to create three distinct flavors of punch. Starting with the citrus base, pure cane sugar and filtered water are added to the green or black brewed tea. After that, Delta Blues’ unique blend is taken a step further. Bayou Soleil is a green tea punch infused with peach, apricot, pineapple and quince, while Deep South is a classic black tea punch infused with spearmint. The most popular flavor, Peachy Keen, is infused with peaches and lemongrass. (See our full review of each flavor below.)

Bass points out that the quantity of sugar was originally lessened for Northern palates, but the recipe stuck. Not sickly sweet like some teas, the infused flavors of Delta Blues really stand out. The response from Southerners? “They say, wow, this is incredible, I’ve never had anything like it, it reminds me of my childhood, it reminds me of home,” says Bass. “It’s always been a happy memory that most people have relayed back to us.”

In October, Bass and her tea punch finally came back to the South by way of Atlanta. Delta Blues products are now distributed by Tree of Life at locations like Whole Foods in Nashville and Memphis, West Paces Ferry in Atlanta, Chamberlin’s Natural Food Stores in Florida and Grassland Foodland in Franklin, Tennessee, and Bass personally distributes to The Produce Place and Greenlight Market & Deli in Nashville. If Delta Blues isn’t in your state yet, you can order all three flavors for $1.99 each from the Snazzy Gourmet website.

Bass is thrilled to be back home, frequently visiting her family in Nashville (sometimes cousin and country music star Dierks Bentley stops by when not on tour), swimming masters with the Atlanta Rainbow Trout Aquatics Team and expanding her collection of out-of-print Southern cookbooks. “I’m definitely in my element,” she says. “I started Delta Blues Iced Tea as a way to have my region away from home always there with me.” And now her region has her, and her tea punch, back home.

Delta Blues shipped us each flavor of punch to taste before our interview with Leslie McKinney Bass (no relation to Erin Z. Bass, although if we tried really hard, we could probably find one). Of course, we just wanted to know if we could make Deep South Tea Punch our official drink, but we ended up loving all three flavors. Like a fine wine, Delta Blues’ punch has layers of flavor, great finish and deserves to be sipped slowly with family and friends.

Bayou Soleil: Dominated by apricot at the start, the flavor quickly changes to include pineapple and peach. Refreshing and smooth, Bayou Soleil would make a wonderful juice base for an afternoon cocktail with vodka and a sprig of mint from the garden.

Deep South: Infused with sumptuous spearmint, Southerners could sip this aromatic tea punch all day long. (So could we, as it was our favorite flavor, and not just because of the name.) Refreshing from the first sniff to the last sip, with a taste of lime on the finish, Bass recommends using this punch as a base for mint juleps.

Peachy Keen: Like being in a peach orchard, Peachy Keen delivers on the intense, juicy peach flavor with a nice hint of lemongrass for balance.

Delta Blues offers serving suggestions for its products and recommends its punches hot with a lime twist, matched as a marinade for barbecued meats or combined with 2 oz. of your favorite bourbon, rum, tequila or vodka spirit.

Recipes can be found here, and below is one for Delta Blues’ take on the Mint Julep.

Delta Huguenot Julep

2 oz. Delta Blues Tea Punch
6 sprigs of fresh mint
2 tsp. grenadine
Juice of 1 lime
1 oz. pineapple juice
3 oz. light rum

Bruise 5 mint sprigs to release oils. Leave in cup & pack tight with bar ice. Add remaining ingredients. Stir, then let rest until cup frosts. Decorate with remaining mint sprig. Dust with powdered sugar. Serve very cold with straws. Wrap glass with napkin if desired. Enjoy!

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