Bottom Line at the Top: there are a lot of revolting ready-to-drink bottles of "stuff" out there. On examination, they're usually full of corn syrup, artificial colors, and artificial sweeteners all in the name of pretending to impart a colorful but low-calorie effect on the guileless purchaser. Mark this: Marlee's Green Tea liqueur might be on the same shelf but it is decidedly not one of those pre-mix atrocities. It's in a different class of designer, read-to-drink spirits that are looking for quality, complexity, and taste. This is a spirit that is not only better than what you can typically get out of a pre-made bottle but better than what you can do at home. While it may not satisfy all committed mixologists in head-to-head settings, it's beyond question a crowd-pleaser and for those who are trying to juggle grilled burgers and refrigerated potato salad along with the drinks, this is a godsend.
Marlee's Green Tea liqueur is, in our opinion, somewhat of a reprise from the sweet tea vodka era that had it's heydey around 2010. That's not a bad thing because tea is a particularly good ingredient in cocktails and massively underutilized in the modern bar. As a flavor category it's familiar, easy to work with, and widely appealing. In the Marlee's Green Tea variation, it comes in at a very lightly proofed liqueur (almost a RTD or "ready-to-drink" spirit) made with rye whiskey, green tea, and sweetened with agave.
In approaching Marlee's, we tried to imagine why one would specifically seek out this particular bottle over, say, just tossing vodka in some regular tea or any other ad hoc drink that a person who liked iced tea might throw together at home. So first up is a slate of home-brewed drinks. Marlee's also needs to compete against other tea spirits. In this case, we compared it to one of the finest tea liqueurs we've ever tasted in the Tatratea Citrus liqueur... we've tasted this before and recommended it highly. If Marlee's can compete with Tatratea, then it can compete with anyone. A specialty spirit worth the effort to go find? We shall see...
Marlee's celebrates itself as ready to drink out of the bottle, recommending that most-easy-of-all preparations as their "classic cocktail": simply pour it out on ice. That's exactly what we did. In the glass it smells pleasantly of tea and, we swear, apple! Without ice, it tastes like sweet tea. It's slightly more bitter than Snapple or something you might get from a gas mart on the road and with its pleasing, soft-drink taste it's very easy to forget that there's alcohol in it. On ice, the apple-fruit aroma pours forth stridently. The taste is easy and approachable, with the ice cooling the bitterness and the taste not cloying or syrupy in the least. We expect many sweet tea drinking southerners would be inspired to add sugar to this drink. It begged for soda water, so we put some in. It's delicious, almost like a lightly sweetened sparkling water and, we imagine, very low-calorie (and now blended to about 10 proof, certainly hard to get drunk on). It's hardly a designer cocktail but an excellent poolside drink, particularly if you're supposed to be watching the kids and be ready to drive them to the ER when the inevitable happens.
Comparing to Tatratea, we're in different worlds. Where the Marlee's is light and fruity, the Tatratea is intense. Where the Marlee's faintly suggested an adult beverage, the Tatratea's sweetness masks a powerful 64 proof impact. Soda water in Tatratea is a defense mechanism like sunglasses on the ocean where Marlee's uses soda water to extend the lifespan of the bottle itself. There's no point in declaring a winner here. Rather, say that the Marlee's is appropriate for the office bridal shower while the Tatratea is recommended for the Vegas bachelorette party. We imagine the entire sweet tea vodka category would be similar. Both taste good but at half the proof of Tatratea (and thus, flavored vodkas and similar products) appropriate settings are wanted.
Marlee's vs Sweet Tea and Vodka
This is the kitchen improv test. Here, we compared Marlee's on ice to citrus vodka and sweet tea on ice (we used Pure Leaf Honey Green Tea and Absolut Citron). For the Marlee's, we added a squeeze of lemon because the taste seems to beg for that. The fresh lemon (as is often the case) brightens up the drink like a sunbreak in Seattle. As above, the taste is pleasant and almost not even a drink. It's almost not sweet enough. We can see people drinking lots of Marlee's with all kinds of fruit and juice additives all afternoon and never realizing that they're getting smashed. Dangerous.
With the home-brew comparison we approximated the alcohol strength of the Marlee's with 3 parts sweet tea to one part citrus vodka. It tastes just like you'd imagine: the sweet tea without any kick whatsoever. The citrus vodka just vanishes inside of the drink and it's gone. In side-by-side comparisons, the Marlee's is vastly more flavorful and exciting while the home-brew sweet tea is just limp and weak. The only thing to be mindful of is the cost. The citrus vodka will supply something like twelve 8-ounce drinks for every bottle while the Marlee's will be used up like wine: something like four drinks per bottle.
Marlee's vs Arnold Palmer and Whiskey
Let's try another home-brew, this time with Pure Leaf Half Tea & Half Lemonade. This because so many people love their Arnold Palmers, which is sort of blasphemous to throw vodka into but we're trying to strike a balance between an electric lemonade (that old college staple) and something close to the taste profile of Marlee's with the tea. Remembering our lesson from the prior drink, our ratios here were only 2 parts tea to 1 part vodka. We put a squeeze of lemon back in the Marlee's.
God the lemon is nice in the Marlee's! (and getting better with every swig we take.) Can the blasphemous Arnold Palmer compete? No... tastes pretty bad, actually, in comparison. Wilted, weak, and a little vodka bitterness on the finish. No contest whatsoever. Again, the only problem is the price to quantity ratio. We can say with great certainty that Marlee's is a far cry better than anything you can do at home monkeying around with sweet tea and liquor-on-hand.
Marlee's vs WL Weller in a Big Apple
Marlee's can stand toe-to-toe in appropriate settings with tea spirits, soundly defeat RTD's in the bottle, and kick the daylights out of anything you can do at home in the kitchen in tea... it's time to compare to something more profound: bourbon. The Big Apple is a cocktail recommended by Marlee's and calls for 4oz of their liqueur, 1oz of apple juice, 0.5oz of lime juice, and topped with ginger beer (we used Sioux City). When using WL Weller Bourbon as a comparison, we're looking to see how Marlee's competes with the bigger, bolder tastes. Since Weller comes in at almost 3 times the alcohol strength, we used 1oz of whiskey with 2oz of apple juice to try and correct the proportions. This is a very significant test because this is an excellent bourbon playing in spaces where bourbon typically excels.
Bonus, making this with Marlee's is pretty easy. It'd be no problem to make a pitcher of this cocktail, although you'd have to individually add the ginger beer so it wouldn't go flat. And pitchers it needs because it's delicious. This is the absolute epitome of the neighborhood party pitcher drink. Everyone would drink this (including the kids so be careful). It's spicy, it's sweet, there's no alcohol burn, you can drink in large quantities... it's everything you want on a hot afternoon. Just outstanding. The only thing we worry about is the calorie count. Switching to WL Weller, we're very curious: can this drink be even more awesome with bourbon?
In the Weller, the apple is stronger and the bourbon comes through... it's better. But here's the thing: it's better for us! And by "us" we mean Proof66 staff and no question that Proof66 staff love their bourbon. We want that bourbon taste, that bourbon char, that bourbon character. Others among us who were not whiskey drinkers preferred the Marlee's because, and we quote, "You can't taste the alcohol!" Recognizing that elitists and purists everywhere cringe when they hear this, understand that the "can't taste the alcohol" crowd is numerous (and are often the ones wearing the bikinis at the parties), and further recognizing that the Marlee's is still good for the whiskey drinkers (just not as good), you have to give the populist vote to Marlee's. You whiskey drinkers have a flask anyway and can pour some Weller in on the side.
The important finding is that apple and ginger mix is a great cocktail! Any home bar that isn't keeping both ingredients on hand is an impoverished bar indeed.
Marlee's is not going to replace your bourbon, your favorite martini-styled cocktail, and lacks the sheer bottling proof to displace many of the vodkas and some liqueurs on the market. Fair enough. But you're going to find Marlee's next to the buckets of slushee margaritas, the brightly-colored syrups, the skinny spritzers, and the beer-cocktail hybrids in a can. In this crowd of marketing intern projects looking to get lucky, it is vastly superior. In our opinion, it is probably better aimed as a substitute for a moderately good bottle of wine. Sharing a bottle of Marlee's appeals to us a great deal more than a bottle of most Chardonnay or "Cab" that groups might acquire preparing for some festive occasion or another.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received a 750ml bottle of Marlee's liqueur free of charge. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]