For me, this is the time of year for a good gin & tonic, and judging by a shortage of tonic waters at the local grocery stores right now, I’m not the only one who thinks so. I thought it would be a good time to update and rerun this piece for July 2014, with lots of updates. The recipe section has been extensively updated. I have also posted a roundup of commercial tonic waters which you can read here.
One cool spring evening, I spotted an article in Imbibe magazine which extolled the virtues of making tonic water from scratch. It included the much-loved recipe from Kevin Ludwig who, at the time, was at Park Kitchen. As gin and tonic is my drink of choice, it caught my eye. Six or seven ingredients. The entire process boiled down to a few pictures. How simple! What could go wrong?
You’d think after years of cooking experience, I’d know better. Conveniently forgotten, my first experience making pasta. I was about to be reminded of exactly how many things can go wrong.
I quickly scanned the article. Assembling the ingredients is not difficult:
1. Track down a source for cinchona bark also known as quinine. Fool that I am, I ordered a pound, which will last me until the end of my days – purchase more like 100 grams if it’s available. The powdered form is best, as I’ve found that grinding the bark yourself doesn’t give the same extraction. In Oregon, the Stone Cottage in Sellwood carries cinchona, or if you prefer mail order, you’ll find it at Amazon.com. If you are ecologically minded, look for a company that practices sustainable harvesting.
2. Next, find citric acid. I’d never noticed it in the store before, but with a quick bit of sleuthing, I tracked it down in the bulk foods section at a local market. In Oregon, Fred Meyer and New Seasons has it, or check Amazon.com. I scooped some of the white powder that looked suspiciously like a street drug into a plastic bag, and headed home, hoping I wouldn’t get pulled over for some minor traffic violation on the way.
3. On to the easy stuff. Lots of limes, sugar, some star anise, lemongrass… I even threw in a new box of coffee filters. As soon as the quinine powder arrived, my mise en place would be complete!
I’m not good at ordering things over the internet. Once the credit card is accepted, I start looking out the window, waiting for the UPS truck to deliver the goods. How can it be, that in these days of the internet and miracle inventions, some sort of appliance in the kitchen doesn’t ding and proffer forth my quinine as soon as the credit card goes through? Anyway, after five days of waiting, I’d run out of store-bought tonic water and was feeling grumpy. Still it failed to show.
That evening, after a particularly lousy day, there was a quiet rapping on my door. The dog and I looked at each other, and decided it was the crazy lady down the hall, so didn’t answer. It wasn’t until two hours later when I took him for a walk, that I nearly fell over the small cardboard box next to my door. A small amount of brown powder was spilling onto the yellow carpet.
The dog could wait a moment. I brought the dusty mess inside, and wetting my finger, dipped it into the quinine. Mentally put my taste buds on high alert, ready to find the subtleties as I raised it to my mouth. It was, as they say, a regrettable error. My lips involuntarily slammed shut. I wanted to wash my tongue with soap. It was horrible; a foul, acrid taste that must be akin to waking up face down in an Irish peat bog after one too many drinks.
Undaunted, I opened the box, and then a bag, and, inside that, another bag (lots of good they did), and watched as a fine brown powder rose and hung in the air before settling all over the kitchen. Interesting. I walked the dog and considered the possibilities. Yes, I could do the reasonable thing and wait until the next day, but it was only ten on a Friday night. Twenty minutes later my simple syrup was boiling away, I’d added the other ingredients, and was looking forward to the famous Park Kitchen gin and tonic.
In retrospect, I now realize that I was a stupid fool. The Imbibe article mentioned that it “can take a while to filter out the quinine” -the understatement of the year. I strained it through a sieve, then cheesecloth. Nothing changed. Set up a cone, carefully pouring the syrup into a paper filter within. It started running through, coming out a beautiful honey brown. Ahaha! I cried, just before the promising stream slowed to a few drops and stopped, filter impossibly clogged. A scant teaspoon shimmered in the measuring cup below.
I’m not one easily daunted by cooking. Soon every sieve in the house was lined with a coffee filter, slowly dripping my elixir into bowls and cups. I set them all over the kitchen counter, balancing the sieve handles on spice jars to keep them from falling over. With methodical precision I moved from filter to filter, emptying-replacing-emptying-replacing, always careful not to lose any of that beautiful tonic. I was a tonic making, filtering machine. By one in the morning I had enough to make a drink, and, with shaking hand, raised it to my lips.
It was good, but a little harsh; perhaps a bit sweet. Would it mellow over time? It needed a stronger gin to stand up to the flavors. I was tired. My back hurt. Sanity finally regained its hold, and I decided to change the filters once more and head to bed.
That is where things really went wrong.
You know how dominoes are when you stack them all up in nice, neat little rows? Push one, and they all go with satisfying little clicks? Jury-rigged kitchen contraptions are similar. When a tired arm hits the back of a sieve propped up on a little bottle, and the resulting pull of gravity flips the filter full of syrup into the air, time suddenly slows. I flailed helplessly as four filters full of skanky, sticky, simple syrup-laden brown muck catapulted themselves to various landing spots in my kitchen. Some of the gunk ran across the counter and into that little crack between the stove and the cabinets; you know the one? Some poured to the floor and ran under the oven. One batch made a pirouette that would make a dancer proud, and landed in my open kitchen gadget drawer.
Some items of note about simple syrup: on a good day, when spilled, it is hard to clean up. Add a measure of acrid brown talcum powder and some citric acid, and you have a substance that is like glue. I can’t tell you how many times I mopped the floor. I pulled out the oven and mopped some more. Rinsed all the gadgets in the drawers… and the drawers below. Like some miracle product sold on late-night TV, as soon as everything dried, it turned sticky again. I made it to bed at 4:30am, uncomfortable with the knowledge that I had been able to save about three ounces of tonic. Not my best kitchen performance.
Part II: Quoth the Food Dude, “Nevermore” Click here for part II and the final recipe