In the 50’s I’d come home from school and mom would turn on the Children’s Hour on NPR. I would sit sideways in the egg chair, lost in stories and music. At 5:30, the brakes on Dad’s Porsche would squeal as he turned up the driveway, and I’d have to give up the chair. He’d drop his briefcase, take off his suit, and head to the kitchen for a nightly cocktail. Frequently it was a gin and tonic, and I’d sit at the bar and watch as he measured every ingredient. I loved the mysterious soda siphon and begged to push the button to make the soda. It wasn’t long before he gave in and agreed to let me make his drink for him. Oddly, I never tried tasting the liquor, I just enjoyed the chemistry of bartending.
I still like making drinks. The rhythm of a busy bar where you become a spinning, pouring, mixing machine, and everything is automatic from the recipes to the casual conversation that makes people feel welcome. I’ve always been more comfortable behind rather than in front of the bar.
To this day, my cocktail taste preferences tend to follow my father’s. Manhattans, the Old Fashioned, Martinis, a Sidecar, the Sazerac and of course, a perfect Gin & Tonic. All of these are deceptively simple drinks, but it is difficult to find a bartender who makes them well.
Anyone should be able to take the four ingredients of a gin & tonic and come up with a good cocktail. Unfortunately, outside of a high end lounge, well-made versions are more the exception than the rule. The average bartender grabs for a bottle of Schweppes, or, even worse, squirts the tonic out of a gun, and ends up with an off balance and overly sweet drink that has little in common with the craft version. Add in typical gin from the bartender’s well and it could double as paint remover.
To make the drink correctly, one only has to keep a few things in mind:
- Measure everything. Any craft bartender measures – with a delicate drink, this can make all the difference.
- Use a good gin and match it to the tonic. This is more easily said than done, especially if you haven’t experienced many examples. Take a look at this article in the NY Times, “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis“. The article is geared towards the martini, but the tasting notes are good indicators of how they might work with tonic. I tend to gravitate towards specific gins – these days I’m pouring more Ransom or Plymouth than anything else, and because I know the flavor profile of those gins and most of the tonic waters on the market, I can do a reasonable job of matching the two. There is no sense in using a good gin, if the tonic is going to smooth it out so much that it loses the characteristics that make it interesting. Local bartender extraordinaire suggests Aira Portland Dry Gin or Fords.
- Use a good tonic water. Remember, like cooking, anything you make is as good as its worst ingredient. Tonic water matters as much as the gin. If you are used to grocery store tonic, do yourself a favor and buy a bottle of one of the better versions listed in my roundup. Compare, and more than likely, you’ll make the switch to a better brand.
- Don’t add too much ice – two or three cubes should suffice. You want to chill the drink, not dilute it.Some people even make ice cubes out of tonic water, and I have been known to chill the glass before making the drink so that it takes less ice. You can also fill the glass with ice, let it chill, and then dump the extra ice and melted liquid out. For the same reason, carefully stir rather than shaking the drink.
- Taste the before you add the obligatory squeeze/wedge of lime. Some of the commercial tonics have so much citrus, you may find it isn’t necessary. With some gins, you may find that lemon is more complementary. I generally take a rolled lime and cut one wedge for a squeeze, and one to drop in the glass.
- Taste your drink and be prepared to make adjustments. If it is too bitter, add more tonic water to smooth it out. If it is too smooth, add more gin. I carefully pour the tonic down the side of the glass so that it gently washes into the drink. That way as many bubbles are left as possible – agitation will cause them to rise to the surface and burst.
- Forget. Let the drink wash over you. Forget your kids, the boss who doesn’t understand you, your co-workers who are idiots, and walking the dog. You’ve made the perfect gin and tonic. It’s time to relax.
Next you might want to read my roundup of tonic waters. Are craft tonics worth the high price? How about the tonic syrups that are now coming available? Does it really make much of a difference when you make a tonic from scratch? I’ll have the answers.