Sometimes the best cocktail ingredients have their roots in medicine. We owe the development of gin in part to the medieval belief that spirits infused with juniper had medicinal qualities. It didn’t hurt that juniper and other botanicals helped improve the taste of early grain distillates, but why not claim that they fight disease too?
The medicinal benefits of gin’s frequent partner, tonic, are better established. The bitter edge in tonic water comes from quinine extracted from bark of the cinchona tree, long used as a muscle relaxant. More importantly, it’s a life-saving prophylactic and treatment for malaria. The gin and tonic supposedly became popular as a way of making bitter tonic more palatable; a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but a jigger of gin and a squeeze of lime is even better.
Unless you’re traveling in the tropics, however, the odds are you’re drinking quinine more for flavor and refreshment than for its medicinal qualities (though I’ve had a lot of quinine drinks in researching this post and got over a cold in the process). Fortunately, with quinine-flavored tonics, spirits, and wines coming back onto the market, this is a great time to explore quinine as an ingredient in cocktails.
Tonic water is the most well-known quinine beverage, but for a long time the only tonics on the U.S. market were overly sweet and lacking in quinine flavor. In recent years, however, some much more flavorful brands have become available, such as Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Fentimans. Some craft cocktail bars and home enthusiasts have taken to making their own tonics, buying cinchona bark and adding custom blends of spices. If you’ve only tried mass-market tonics, a drink made with one of these is a revelation and worth seeking out.
The gin and tonic is just the beginning of quinine drinks, though. Tonic wines such as the popular Lillet are also flavored with quinine. These are great enjoyed on the rocks with a slice of orange. The most famous Lillet cocktail is James Bond’s Vesper, but a more interesting drink is the Corpse Reviver No. 2, adapted from the wonderful Savoy Cocktail Book:
¾ oz Lillet Blanc
¾ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice
Dash of absinthe
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. This is a perfectly balanced drink, complex but still very appealing to imbibers who may not be into the bitter notes of gin and quinine.
A drier cocktail comes from Douglas Derrick, head barman at the acclaimed Portland Italian restaurant Nostrana. He uses three different tonic wines in this concoction. There’s the familiar Lillet, the more bitter Cocchi Americano from Italy, and Bonal, a French aperitif flavored with quinine and gentian. It’s a lot of flavors in one glass, but it tastes great. Douglas calls it a Negroni Bianco and has featured it as a Negroni of the Month, a rotating menu item featuring twists on the classic cocktail.
1½ oz. gin (Douglas suggests Plymouth)
½ oz. Cocchi Americano
½ oz. Lillet Blanc
8 drops ginger extraction
Orange twist, for garnish
Stir the first four ingredients with ice and strain into a Bonal-rinsed cocktail glass, then garnish with the orange twist. (To make the ginger extraction, juice fresh ginger and preserve the liquid with grain alcohol, such as Everclear, at about 5 percent of the juice’s volume.)
Another tonic wine recently introduced is Maurin Quina, which is a bit on the sweeter side. It’s a sweet white wine flavored with quinine and cherries and fortified with cherry brandy. It’s a nice aperitif, but I’ve also been enjoying it with aquavit in this refreshing cocktail, the Scandinavian Spring:
1½ oz. Krogstad aquavit
½ oz. Maurin Quina
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. honey-lavender syrup
Lemon twist, for garnish
Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with the lemon twist. (To make the honey-lavender syrup, combine 1 cup hot water with ¼ cup lavender petals and ½ cup honey. Let cool and strain.)
Quinine plays a role in some excellent after-dinner drinks too. Barolo Chinato is made by infusing the famous Italian wine with quinine and other botanicals, then sweetening it with a little sugar. It’s a delicious drink, but given the price of Barolo wines, it isn’t cheap.
Quinine also takes center stage in calisaya, a bittersweet liqueur infused with cinchona bark. This is now on the U.S. market with a brand called Calisaya, and it’s fantastic neat or on the rocks.
Whether in an aperitif, a cocktail, or an after-dinner treat, the new wave of quinine tonics, wines, and spirits on the market proves that taking one’s medicine has never tasted so good.
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