Gin haters might tell you that tonic water found its way into a gin and tonic to make the drink more palatable. In fact, the opposite is true. Tonic water, made from quinine, was originally consumed as medicine to prevent malaria. Eighteenth-century tonic, heavy on quinine, was so bitter that gin was added to make the tonic more drinkable.
Though the drink has its roots in medicine, it has remained popular, which is curious given its bitter taste. In the cocktail world of natural selection, it seems the gin and tonic might have been weeded out by now in favor of sweeter or saltier drinks. Bitter, in this case, is better.
Many cocktails rely on a given mixer to dilute or complement the liquor’s flavor: sugar, for example, mitigates the harsh flavor of bourbon (the Mint Julep, the Old Fashioned), while grapefruit or orange juice adds a sweet/bitter flavor to the benign taste of vodka (the Salty Dog, the Screwdriver).
But the gin and tonic combines three strong flavors — quinine, gin, and lime — that celebrate, rather than diminish, the taste of bitterness. A good drink balances the three, while a bad one resembles medicine, something to drink quickly rather than savor.
A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal introduced all sorts of variations on the theme, including tonic syrups that you blend with soda water for a genuine DIY G&T. I’m reserving judgment.
The pronounced flavor of quinine — the bitter brew made from cinchona bark — influences the flavor of a gin and tonic, but are all tonics alike? In the not-too-recent past, tonic meant Schweppes, Canada Dry, or inexpensive in-store brands. Now liquor and grocery stores both sell various alternatives with labels boasting natural flavors, cane sugar or agave nectar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, “triple filtered carbonated” or spring water, and “botanicals.” These tonics cost two to three times more than the old-school varieties.
Does the kind of tonic you use really make much of a difference in a gin and tonic? Recently, I hosted a tonic (and gin) tasting, to test this premise. (Only one of our four tasters knew what the tonics were.) Our methods were casual, following these basic guidelines:
The beauty of blind-tasting anything is that you remove bias, both visual and perceived, perpetuated by branding and habit. Our results, from worst to best, were both predictable and surprising:
On second thought, the popularity of Schweppes wasn’t so surprising. After all, it’s the tonic we cut our teeth on, the tonic we’ve consumed most frequently, the one we associate with tonic flavor, the flavor we’ve come to expect in a gin and tonic.
Given this knowledge, I now choose tonic like I buy wine. When I’m feeling flush, I choose the spendier boutique brands. Otherwise it’s plonk — and that means Schweppes — for me. It’s good enough.
Vacations, in my family, start with a gin and tonic. I’m not sure when the tradition started; I just know that any vaguely celebratory summer gathering sets the craving. My dad makes a mean gin and tonic, arguably one of the best, adhering to a few self-imposed rules.
Step by step, here’s how to make Oren Floyd’s perfect G&T:
Carrie Floyd is Culinate’s recipe editor. Her father, Oren, is a mixologist.
Related recipe: The Gin and Tonic
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