Gin and tonic in three acts

A refresher

August 19, 2011

Act I: The gin and tonic

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.

A gin and tonic has roots in medicine.

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.

Act II: The tonic

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 tonic really matter?

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:

  • Nobody liked the drink made with Canada Dry; the tonic tasted too sweet and chemically, with an off-bitter flavor. The drink made with Hansen’s, the can stamped all over with “natural,” didn’t fare much better; it was dubbed “boring” and “plain.”
  • The tasters all liked Fever-Tree and Q Tonic; they noted the smooth, well-rounded flavors of both, and found Fever-Tree more herbal and aromatic, Q a bit sweeter.
  • The big surprise? Schweppes, the crowd pleaser, was described as such: “nicely bitter,” “bitterly balanced,” and “citrusy.”

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.

Act III: The mixing

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.

Oren’s classic gin and tonic.

Step by step, here’s how to make Oren Floyd’s perfect G&T:

  1. Start with good gin and store it in the freezer to keep it icy cold. Though I’m partial to Tanqueray, my dad’s gin of choice is Bombay Sapphire. My brother, on the other hand, questions paying top dollar for gin when the strong flavor of tonic dominates the drink. Though he has a point, I’d argue that cheap gin sullies the drink.
  2. Fill a bucket glass two-thirds full of ice. Pour one heaping shot (up to the top of the shot glass, over the measuring line) of gin over the ice.
  3. Squeeze a wedge of lime over the ice and gin. In my dad’s opinion, squeezing the lime over the ice and gin, instead of as the final step when the drink is already made, is crucial. Drop the wedge into the glass. (Dad cuts limes into 16ths and uses one or two wedges. I like the taste of fresh lime, opting for larger wedges, cutting the lime into eighths.)
  4. Pour fresh — as in freshly opened — tonic water to almost fill the glass. In my dad’s book, any tonic will do, as long as it’s not flat or diet; never use diet tonic. As for small-batch or house-made tonic, Dad’s not convinced it makes a better drink.
  5. Stir. Find an opening in between the ice to insert a spoon and waggle it back and forth a few times.
  6. Drink.

Carrie Floyd is Culinate’s recipe editor. Her father, Oren, is a mixologist.

Related recipe: The Gin and Tonic

There are 7 comments on this item
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1. by caleb bo baleb on Aug 21, 2011 at 6:23 PM PDT

Oh no! I have been making g&ts with way too much lime. I do like a gimlet though, so maybe that’s why I didn’t mind. Question: now that I am all out of limes, is it okay to substitute lemon? Or should I just make a different drink?

2. by Carrie Floyd on Aug 22, 2011 at 6:37 PM PDT

I think the right way to make a drink is the way that it tastes best to you, unless you’re a bartender or serving a crowd (then I wouldn’t deviate too far when serving classic well drinks). I’ve substituted lemons in a pinch and it’s just not the same. That said, a friend recently, accidentally, picked up “bitter lemon” instead of tonic and it made a pretty tasty drink when paired with gin—and a lime wedge.

3. by Lisa Garrison on Aug 24, 2011 at 4:18 PM PDT

Just checked and we have Schwepps - whew. I agree with Caleb, more lime is good. Only if its fresh. Perfect hot day drink! Today has been wicked hot

4. by maxie on Aug 25, 2011 at 10:42 AM PDT

On the lime: twist the zest only, no juice!! The juice just masks that wonderful perfumey limey taste.

5. by anonymous on Aug 25, 2011 at 10:44 AM PDT

Carrie - gin and bitter lemon is a not uncommon (I wanted to right ‘somewhat common’, but I think that’s overstating it) drink, I’ve ordered it in well stocked bars. My mom told me about it when she found out about my love of G&T’s. Gin and bitter lemon was something that her parents used to drink occasionally - maybe it’s a generational thing?

6. by anonymous on Sep 4, 2011 at 10:14 PM PDT

What about those lime-flavored tonics?

7. by JimW on Sep 18, 2011 at 10:35 AM PDT

I love Hendricks Gin. Bold cucumber taste. I like it with Fever Tree (I find Q Tonic too sweet)with lime and sometimes as a change add a sprig of spearmint.

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