A tonic for the troops.
In search of the perfect Gin & Tonic
To find the perfect gin and tonic we need to start at the beginning. With history. Gin became a part of British culture in the 17th century via the Genever of the low countries yet was initially drunk in just the same way as the Dutch – neat. And in vast amounts, but that’s another story. Bump forward a couple of hundred years and the British were busy subjugating India but there was a problem. The pasty foreigners kept coming down with malaria. Not happy with sickly soldiers the army issued the troops with a powerful Cinchona (aka Quinine) tincture that helped suppress the dreaded malaria. This medicine was so incredibly bitter that sugar and water were added to sweeten and dilute it. At some point someone decided to put their gin ration in the same glass to save time and the gin and tonic was born. Perhaps it was quite unlike the modern version but in any case the Brits never looked back.
Come the 20th century the Gin & Tonic settled into its middle phase as the drink of choice of the English middle classes and, at risk of oversimplification, what ladies sipped in the pub while the men downed their beer and whisky (you really did not want to risk British pub wine in those days!) This Gin & Tonic had a pretty standard formula consisting of a fairly stingy measure of Gordon’s or Beefeater gin in a plain Collins glass, a couple of ice cubes, a little bottle of standard issue Schweppes tonic (or worse, something insipid from the soda gun) and, if you were very lucky a slice of lemon or lime. Not terrible but nothing like what was about to explode on the booze scene in the early years of the 21st century…
As unlikely as it seems the Spanish had been secretly enjoying a sneaky gin and tonic since General Franco departed to the underworld in the mid 70s, probably a vice learned from the seasonal influx of English tourists, but it was during the Spanish gastronomic revival around the turn of the millennium that the modern gin and tonic had its roots. The quest to improve food through attention to detail was also applied to the already moderately popular gin and tonic. Away with the boring Collins glass and in with the Basque sidra glass and later the more elegant balloon glass. New domestic gins with more local botanicals emerged, as did companies such as Fever Tree (2004) with more finely crafted tonics. At the same time, of course, there was a cocktail revival in a similar phase of development and those two scenes certainly encouraged and intertwined with each other. By the early 2010s the number of “craft” and “small batch” gins had gone through the roof with many countries who had never been gin producers joining the fun (Colombian gin anyone?) and a sizeable number of new tonic producers to match. To date there is little sign of the gin and tonic revival slacking off and indeed, why should it? For the noble G&T is a superb drink; refreshing, simple to make while still complex and nuanced. While the Gin & Tonic is technically not a cocktail it is the cocktailista’s default backup to be requested when a bar’s cocktail menu looks suspect or the requisite ingredients, tools or time are not available yet you are in need of cocktaily sustenance.
A relative latecomer to the joys of the G&T it was only recently that I began my quest in earnest for the perfect one. Involved in a project to open a classy restaurant and bar I sought the optimal pairings of gin to tonic for the creation of a modest G&T list. Alas the whole project became thoroughly Corona’d but our protagonist does not easily give up on such a mission. Given the large variety of tonics on the market and positively enormous selection of gins the combination of those two ingredients alone is vast. When an active garnish is added we reach a near infinite number of possible Gin & Tonics. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful thing as the exploration of all those combinations is an informative and rewarding experience. Of course much comes down to personal taste but there are some basic rules to the creation of your perfect G&T that are close to universal. Let’s deal with those first before moving on to my own personal (current) “perfect” G&T.
The glass should be the relatively recent invention that is known as the G&T balloon glass*. Like a large puffed-out wine glass it focuses the aromas in a way that the older Collins glass does not. While your balloon glass need not be pre-chilled (although it’ll do no harm) it should be generously iced with decently big cubes to around its widest point. The more ice used the less will melt and thus your drink will remain fizzy and undiluted. Let the iced glass sit a minute to get thoroughly chilled before adding your gin. 45-60ml is the range of gin to use somewhat depending on how much tonic you intend to use. The tonic should be chilled in the fridge and in individual bottles unless you intend to make several at once in which case a larger bottle can be used. Life being too short for flat tonic, one should never return an opened bottle to the fridge. Individual tonic bottles come in sizes that range from 150-250ml and this brings us to the controversial topic of our gin to tonic ratio. Opinions range from equal portions to drowning the gin completely and, to some extent, those are all valid personal preferences but I would say that three parts tonic to one part gin is a reasonable starting point. Don’t feel compelled to use all the tonic in the bottle – if the perfect balance means tipping 50 ml of your 200ml bottle down the sink, so be it. Pour the appropriate quantity of gin very gently into the glass so as to preserve the fizz and stir ever so gently for the same reasons. As important as a good Gin & Tonic pairing is the choice of garnish and this is where things have gotten a bit wild recently (singed rosemary, pink peppercorns et al). Our default should be a swathe of citrus peel (a slice or wedge coming over as a touch uncouth these days) which will release some wonderful oils into the mix. Orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit or yuzu (if you can afford one) all add significantly to the flavour combination you are creating but the exact choice will be down to intuition or experiment. I prefer to add my swathe at the beginning, twisted over the ice in order to get the maximum citrus oil in my drink but if you like it to be more discreet then, by all means, add it last. Our final question is whether to add a straw or not. While it’s not wrong to serve with a straw I think the enjoyment of your perfect gin and tonic benefits from sipping directly from the glass and enjoying those wonderful aromas.
That’s the template for our modern Spanish style G&T to be gently varied to your own personal liking. I suspect (and perhaps even hope) that my personal search for the perfect gin and tonic may never end but for what it’s worth here is where I’ve landed after many months of trying a wide selection of gins, tonics and garnishes.
Andy’s “perfect” Gin & Tonic
60ml Normindia gin
150-200ml Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic (depending on mood)
Long thin swathe of lemon peel
Assembled as described above.
Notes on ingredients:
Normindia gin is a wonderful mid-price gin made in Normandy, France by a calvados estate in small copper calvados stills. Despite using a fairly standard range of botanicals I find it absolutely delightful – superbly balanced yet with a distinctly orange-forward profile. It comes in an elegant and nicely corked dark bottle at an encouraging 41.4%. While it might not be the most widely available gin consider it a well kept secret that is worth seeking out. Shout out to Pulak Goswami and Barbara Marx for gifting me this gin that I might otherwise never have discovered.
Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic. I tried a lot of tonics on my quest but I kept getting drawn back to this one and finally realised I was going to struggle to find anything that equalled its flavour and balance. Fever Tree are part of the DNA of the G&T revival and while their range is excellent the Mediterranean version is simply sublime with an ability to pair effortlessly with a wide range of gins – which can’t be said of every tonic. Happily it’s also widely available.
Citrus. While I specify lemon here as it balances out the orangeward leanings of Normindia I’m not beyond changing this now and then. Orange if I feel like an all-out orange blast or white grapefruit if I happen to have any. In any case it should be a long thin swathe cut along the length of a nice fresh fruit.
*If you don’t have one a tulip beer glass would make an (almost) acceptable substitute.