Gin’s Best Mate

The rebirth of the summertime classic gin and tonic

Gin’s Best Mate
The standard G&T recipe starts with a ratio of two parts premium tonic to one part your favorite gin, over plentiful ice. (Naomi Green/IV Greenhouse)

Ostensibly simple, the humble gin and tonic is a two ingredient drink that belies the complexity that lies beneath. In this cocktail, the distiller has done all the work. Gin is fairly unrestricted, with a broad definition: Mainly, that gin has to go in the bottle at no less than 80 proof and be predominantly flavored with juniper berries, which lend the pine-tree note that proves so divisive. Beyond that, makers are free to add any flavors they wish, which they do.

Nonconformist gin-makers are prodding the boom with flavoring escapades that run as far afield of the traditional as strawberries, violets, pears, hand-picked herbs, elderflower, cucumbers, wormwood, truffles and rhubarb.

What’s hastened the evolution is the short time needed to test out a new gin. Inspired by an idea, distillers can take between a few hours and days to create a sample. Simply add new ingredients to the basket of botanicals that often hangs inside the still while the spirit cooks, or steep them in afterwards. Even whiskey distillers are enamored of gin’s instant gratification, making it the new darling of both American craft distillers and several traditional Scotch producers.

London dry is the stylistic standard-bearer, with primary juniper aromatics, and a lineup of additional flavors that include exotic but hard-to-recognize botanicals such as orris root, cardamom, cassia bark, baobob and angelica. Iconic brands like Beefeater, Gordon’s and Gilbey are representative of the style.

Noting that not all drinkers were juniper junkies, Bombay Sapphire edged away from typical London dry in 1987 with dialed-back juniper and prominent citrus. In the next decade, the whisky maker William Grant blew the doors open with Hendrick’s, infused after distillation with cucumber and Bulgarian roses. It’s proved so popular that stills have been added to keep up with demand, and its creator, Lesley Gracie, is charged with creating series of seasonal variants. Now a new wave of gin makers differentiate their formulae using botanicals that are organically grown or foraged by hand in the wild to put a local stamp on the product.

The easiest way to join the gin revolution is to key in on a cocktail. And right now there is no question that that drink is the familiar gin and tonic transformed by being served up in magnificent fashion. On the face of it, it’s hard to think of something simpler. It has just two ingredients, and the recipe is the name. But a trend that started in Spain has turned it into an art form. There, the drink has been quite literally expanded with enlarged presentations in balloon glasses festooned with colorful garnishes. Brimming with ice, it’s an essential drink for hot weather functions. It’s hard to fathom that Brits, in their sweltering imperial outposts, invented the gin and tonic in stingy glasses that held a lonely lime slice and no ice.

While it’s a natural for the new breed of bar chefs to tee off on, it’s also friendly at home bars. Aside from being the perfect summer time refresher, the postmodern gin and tonic is a venue to make your own creative impression. Not only will the vast range of gin variants beckon, but so will the chance to paint a canvas with an almost endless palette of fruit and vegetable adornments.

The gin and tonic also comes with a commitment to obsess over details. The glass is first. You need something big, a goblet or a large red wine glass. Riedel, the Austrian manufacturer renowned for specialty wine glasses, even makes a vessel earmarked for the drink.

Fill your glass with ice, but not just any ice. The crushed or slivered type certainly won’t do. Use medium to large cubes of good provenance, but not the big balls used for whiskey. The reason is the amount of gin and mixer you’ll use. You want not only volume, but a strong ratio—two parts tonic to one part gin—nowhere near as miserly as you get at the corner bar. With lots of ice, the drink will stay cold longer and keep the tonic-to-spirit balance in line as time wears on.

With tonic comprising two-thirds of the drink, it’s no time to compromise. The selection of tonic water has also widened with the new range of gins. In general, the trend is toward a sharper quinine presence and fewer artificial ingredients, but using small bottles with persistent bubbles is just as important.

While a wedge of lime is the classic, the new range of gin flavors has opened the floodgates to creative garnishes that showcase a flavor from the gin: an orange or grapefruit section, cucumber slice, stalk of lemongrass, or even flower petals if the spirit seems rosy. The obvious is to drop in juniper berries or cardamom, which are not edible but amp up the olfactory allure. And while aroma and flavor are important, don’t be ashamed to add color for color’s sake.

Other than simply upping your entertainment game, experimenting with the new G&T is a good way to get conversant with the great number of choices on the gin shelf.

The standard recipe starts with a ratio of two parts premium tonic to one part your favorite gin, over plentiful ice. From there, add any appealing seasonal aromatics, from citrus and cucumber to fresh herbs, juniper berries or peppercorns.

Flavor Families

 Bottles of gin

Gin’s traditional base is juniper, so that flavor often dominates. But today a great number of gins push other flavors to the fore, bringing variety to your gin and tonic. We’ve grouped some of the best examples by their top notes to help you explore.

While the London dry gin can be made anywhere and in a broad band of flavors, Beefeater London Dry is still made in that city, with its yeoman warder still strolling on the label. It’s the classic piney gin, with citrus and a range of spice, including anise (94 proof, $17).
Bombay Sapphire Though it lists its 10 botanicals on the label, Sapphire is solidly piney, and broadcasts citrus, floral notes and a certain heartiness (94 proof, $27).
Plymouth Dating to 1793, Plymouth arose in that English city, which once had its own geographically protected style. Similar to London dry, this gin also shows lemon and orange and vibrant earthy notes (82.4 proof, $30).

Blue Coat
Blue Coat, made in Philadelphia, is meant to counter English (or red coat) with its simple recipe of mostly local organic botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica and what it calls “American citrus.” Juniper is muted in favor of sweet lemons (94 proof, $25).
Indoggo Snoop Dogg, the rapper who sang about gin and juice, now makes the former. Indoggo is an outlier in the fruity category for its strawberry infusion. While it is based on traditional gin flavors, it is lean on juniper and citrus and bright with berry notes (80 proof, $25).
Malfy Originale This is a classic dry gin, especially compared with the company’s line of flavored gins. But there is no mistaking its high citrus quotient (from Amalfi Coast lemons). Locally sourced juniper and hearty herbs are also prominent (82 proof, $26).
Tanqueray No. Ten The standard Tanqueray is a classic London dry (but made in Scotland). No. Ten, the super-premium version, is similar, but cranks up the citrus with lime, orange and most prominently grapefruit (94.6 proof, $27).

The Botanist
If any gin can claim terroir, this is the one. Made on Scotland’s island of Islay by the distillers of Bruichladdich whisky, it is informed by a collection of 22 hand-picked flowers and herbs, with heather, spearmint, elderflower, chamomile and thistle all taking bows (92 proof, $38).
Hendrick’s Its tagline is “not for everyone,” but its breadth of flavors gives everyone a chance. Hendrick’s is hard to compartmentalize. Yes, there’s classic juniper, the famous cucumber, and lots of lemon, but in the end its rose petals mark it as solidly floral (88 proof, $30).
Nolet’s Silver It may be from the Netherlands, but Nolet’s has none of the malty notes of a Holland gin—or, for that matter, a lot of juniper. Its peach and raspberry notes might put it in the fruity category, but the Turkish rose is the headliner for this delicate quaff (95.2 proof, $40).
Roku With its Japanese botanicals, it is hard to put this gin from Suntory into a slot. If not for the cherry blossoms (sakura flower), it might be described as leafy based on its use of two types of teas. At its base is a classic gin style and a peppery note that keeps it from cloying (86 proof, $27).

Citadelle Reserve
While we expect gin to be clear, an old tradition exists for it to spend some time in wood (e.g., the casks they were shipped in). Citadelle, made in Cognac stills, puts the concept into modern practice with French oak. Several months of resting seems to soften the juniper and bring on honey, vanilla and a floral finish (88 proof, $40).
Rabbit Hole Louisville-based Rabbit Hole is better known as a distiller of whiskeys, but that hasn’t stopped it from repurposing used rye barrels for short aging. The juniper is understated in favor of vanilla, as well as wood, flowers and spice (89 proof, $34).

Super Tonic

Six mixers worthy of your best gin

 Tonic being poured into a Gin and Tonic with lime wedges
Tonic water dates back to the 17th century when it was used in natural apothecary.  (Steven Joyce/Stockfood)

With the rediscovery and reimagining of gin, it was inevitable that its most popular companion—tonic water—would get a makeover reflective of its most famous active ingredient: quinine.

Of the vast apothecary of natural remedies paired with the drinking of alcohol, quinine water may be the most verifiably effective. In the 17th century, European missionaries to South America learned the local folk wisdom that the bark of the cinchona tree was an antimalarial. The scientific community caught on and isolated its active ingredient as a powder. In 19th century India, the British added gin, lime and sugar to cut its striking bitterness. Commerce later sweetened it, added seltzer and bottled it in the form of the soft drink you know better as tonic water.

But as recent revivalists of the cocktail culture began to reclaim the past, self-styled bar chefs and then boutique companies created alternatives. They stressed well-sourced quinine and dialed back sweetness. Hence, it’s not so much additional quinine that underscores the bitterness in some new tonics, but the absence of sugar coating.

While these tonics may not be needed to prevent malaria, novel quinine sources are still a good way to up your mixed-drink game. Here are a few.

Fever-Tree Founded in 2004 as one of the early entrants, Fever-Tree touted its specially sourced quinine from the Congo. Since that initial sharp and orangish effort, it has created several variants. The reduced sugar version—“Refreshingly Light”—reveals an interesting grapefruit note.

Fentimans This English company began making ginger beer in 1905 and branched off into a broad range of soft drinks. In its tonic water, it touts quinine milled from bark, Sicilian lemons and Asian lemongrass. Not surprisingly, it is very citric, with a bit of a mineral taste.

Schweppes The inventor of bottled sparkling water has made tonic water since 1870. In addition to the standard brand you can now find tonics in their premium line called 1783. The one labeled “bitter lemon tonic water” is quite tart, with an interesting earthy quality.

Q Though today Brooklyn’s Q Mixers produces a range of carbonated beverages, they were founded in 2007 specifically as a better alternative to mass-produced tonics. Q Spectacular tonic pops with floral notes and citrus.

365 This is the Whole Foods Market take on tonic water. It’s full of sweet fruit, without much bitterness.

Buzbee’s Another U.K. maker, Buzbee’s trumpets its dedication to sustaining the bee population, so being sweetened with honey fits the bill. It’s particularly dry but allows the expected honey note, as well as lavender and herbs, to show through.

Tonic from Scratch

This recipe gives the building blocks, but as with the cocktail, feel free to add whatever you like. Citrus peels are always good, as are herbs and even such spices as star anise and cardamom.

4 cups water
3 cups cane sugar
3 tablespoons powdered cinchona bark
1/4 cup citric acid
3 stalks lemongrass, chopped
Zest of a lemon or lime

Combine water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn to low. Add cinchona bark powder, citric acid, lemongrass and zest. Stir, and let simmer for 30 minutes. Cool, then strain through a coffee filter.

You will end up with a brown syrup that will keep up to a month in a glass container stored away from light. To serve, mix 1 part syrup with 1 part gin in a glass, add ice and 4 parts seltzer, to taste.

The color is distinctly unlike most tonic water, but that’s a point of honor.

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