Building a Better Gin & Tonic, Part II"/>
Classic cocktails don't get much simpler than the G&T. It's essentially only two ingredients--albeit two pungent yet flavorful ingredients that, when combined together, can be delicious or dreadful. Squeeze in too much or too little lime juice and you can change the flavor of the drink even further. Last week we discussed gin, today, let's talk tonic.
Originally a vehicle for malaria medicine, tonic water is known for its distinctive bitter, aromatic flavor. This flavor comes quinine, originally extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, but now synthesized in a lab. In British colonies in the tropical climates in the late 1800s, quinine was dissolved in carbonated water and mixed with gin to mask the bitter flavor, before being dispensed as medicine. And thusly, the gin & tonic was born.
My first experience with tonic water wasn't an auspicious one. I was around 10 years old and had a tummy ache. My parents, the consummate hosts, always had club soda and tonic water on hand, so they could mix up the favorite cocktail of whatever friend happened to stop by. At the time, all small bottles of Schweppes in the fridge looked the same to me, so I twisted the cap on one and took a swig. Blech! After just one taste, I swore off tonic for about 25 years.
Most of us are familiar with the widely available tonic with the mustard yellow label, but thanks to a growing interest in artisanal products, quality cocktails, and a backlash of high fructose corn syrup, the market has been flooded in recent years with various tonics that range in flavor and price. Are these fancy-pants tonics worth the price? We did a tasting to find out.
At your neighborhood supermarket, you'll likely only find a couple tonic options: Schweppes, and/or Canada Dry. Whole Foods makes their own label tonic and hippie soda company Hansen's makes one too. Head to a gourmet market like Thriftway or Metropolitan Market and you'll find Fentimans, Q Tonic and Fever Tree. If you have more time and/or the DIY spirit, you can make your own tonic with this recipe from Imbibe magazine or order Tom'r Tonic online. Both use cane sugar and real cinchona bark, which results in a caramel-colored syrup you mix with seltzer water.
For gin, we mixed these tonics with Tanqueray, Hendrick's and Plymouth. On first taste, it was clear Hendrick's was too mild and too floral for a G&T. It's great with soda and perfect with vermouth, but not with tonic water. Tanqueray works well with tonic, but is more juniper-forward than Plymouth. Both work well when mixed in a G&T as do countless other gins. Find a gin you like, preferably something on the assertive side, and you'll be in good shape.
The tonics we tasted were Fever Tree and Fentiman's, which are known as "Indian tonic." The main difference is better quality quinine and no high fructose corn syrup. They are instead sweetened with cane sugar instead. We also tasted Hansen's, which is sweetened with cane sugar as well, and is about half the price of the fancier tonics. And Schweppes, the old stand-by with the yellow label was included in our line-up as well.
Fever Tree has an intense bitter orange flavor that mellowed as the ice melted. Hansen's was a bit sweeter, but still maintained a distinct bitter taste. Fentiman's was by far the most well-balanced: bitter, sweet and intense. Surprisingly, Schweppes was also quite balanced, albeit a little less intense. Given my budget, I'll likely continue to stock Hansen's, which is about $5 for 6 (8-ounce) cans. Fentiman's is $3 for one 9-ounce bottle, which is about the average price for the fancy tonics on the market. And I have forgiven Schweppes for the shock it gave my palette when I was 10. It's widely available, plays nice with gin and is the least expensive option for tonic water.
The ringers for our G&T tasting were ice and lime juice. A G&T should be cold, so I'd be inclined to keep my gin in the fridge to give it an extra chill. It's also important to use a chilled glass if possible and large ice cubes if you have them. Dilution is an issue with a G&T, so starting off with cold ingredients and keeping them cold is key. Fresh lime juice is to a G&T what salt & pepper is to scrambled eggs. They taste OK without it, but once you add it the flavors really pop. You aren't making a lime drink, so don't go crazy with it, but 1 to 2 good-sized wedges are essential. And to get the most juice out of your limes, cut around the core as illustrated above.
Gin & Tonic
1-2 fresh lime wedges
2 oz. gin
4 oz. tonic water
Fill a chilled glass 2/3 with ice. Squeeze lime over ice and drop lime wedges into the glass. Pour gin and tonic water over ice and stir well with a bar spoon. Serve immediately.