The second most popular drink in my cocktail poll is the Gin and Tonic. This is some classic stuff, which you can find everywhere today. It's a refreshing highball drink that takes advantage of the interesting flavor profile of tonic water. Like the bucks I looked at previously, it's an easy drink to make, assuming you have tonic water lying around. Also, like the bucks, this drink depends on a good mixer more than anything else. And not all tonic water is created equal, my friends.
Tonic water is intended to be used as its name suggests, as a tonic, for your health. It contains quinine, from Cinchona tree bark, which is effective for preventing malaria. It's been used in that capacity since the 17th century, though it was used medicinally even before that in its native land of Peru. It really came into its own as people isolated what was being effective in the early 19th century. Aside from being great for malaria, quinine is also horribly bitter, so from the very beginning of its usage, folks were mixing it with other things, like sugar or wine, to make it more palatable. The medicinal tonic water of the 19th century was much more bitter than the sweet concoctions we have today, because it actually had a real, healthy dose of quinine in it. Today's tonic water generally has extremely small amounts of quinine. We tend to use just enough to give a bitter edge to a soda.
Before I dove into making my G&Ts, I figured I should do a little taste-off, like I did with the ginger beer for the bucks. I can easily get my hands on three different commercial brands at my grocery store, but I also have my own homemade tonic syrup (using Jeff Morgenthaler's recipe), which lets me be much more precise with the flavor balance. It's easy to make your own, if you have the ingredients. Cinchona bark isn't a regular grocery store item, so chances are you're going to have to order online, but it doesn't take much cinchona to make a batch, so you can be set for a while with a decent bag of the stuff (FYI, in Danish this is kinabark, if you're looking online for it). OK, so this is what I had on hand to taste:
Schweppes Indian Tonic Water (English)
Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water (English)
San Pellegrino Aqua Tonica (Italian)
Homemade Morgenthaler Tonic Syrup + Soda Siphon
These each have their own flavor going on. I would say the Schweppes is most soda like, and not so bitter for me. The San Pellegrino has a nice clean taste to it. The Fever Tree has some kind of spiciness going on, almost reminding me of ginger, which is quite tasty. The homemade stuff has a stronger citrus flavoring going on that I like quite a lot too. I guess I like tonics with some character to them, so I prefer the Fever Tree and homemade. Not to say that the others aren't fine, and I would dare say a lot of people would prefer the tonic to not have so much character, in which case I'd probably go with the San Pellegrino. One other thing to note was that the Schweppes had the least fizz going on. It wasn't flat, but it definitely wasn't as bubbly as the others.
With your tonic water preferences ironed out, the other piece of this tasty concoction is gin. Gin was a big revelation for me when I started exploring the cocktail world. I had grown up not liking gin at all, and had written it off as one of those things I just won't ever like (like licorice). The problem was there were so many damned cocktails that use gin. Ugh. I figured it was time to explore gin and see if I could make nice with it, or if I truly hated it. Well, long story short, I did more than make nice with it. I really love gin.
What we call gin today started out as another medical mixture in the way-back times. Mixing spirits and herbs for healthful tinctures goes back to medieval times, and the first mention of genever is from the 13th century. By the 17th century we had a malt spirit with a blend of various botanicals in it, with juniper being at the forefront. Genever (or jenever) is the Dutch for juniper, and is where things really got started. British soldiers took it back home to England, where the name got shortened to gin, and the base spirit eventually changed from a malt base to a neutral grain, and the gin "dried" out a bit, lacking the maltiness of genever. The British took the concept and ran wild with it. The Old Tom style of gin became popular in the 19th century, and it was a softer, sweeter version of British gin. In a way, heading back towards its genever roots. This was hugely popular during the high cocktail years, so you find a lot of historical cocktail makers like to lean on Old Tom for authenticity.
The beauty of gin, and what I had to learn to love it, is that not all gins taste the same—as a whopping mouthful of juniper. I've come to love even those now, but originally that's what put me, and many others, off gin. Gin is in a full resurgence right now, and while you always have juniper in there, the mix and prominence of different botanicals means you end up with very different tasting gins—and there are sooo many to choose from these days. I started my gin journey with Hendrick's and some Old Toms, and worked my way back into the London Drys, which tend to have stronger, sharper juniper. I also played around with genevers and found that I immediately loved them. The maltiness in the flavor created a bridge for my whiskey-loving tastebuds, and presents a totally different spirit than gin.
I currently have five gins in stock that I tasted in my G&Ts. For completeness and a bit of fun, I also gave my genever a try as well.
Tanqueray London Dry (English)
Tanqueray 10 (English)
Sipsmith London Dry (English)
Monkey 47 Dry (German)
Zuidam Potstill Genever, 1 Year (Dutch)
Well, a Gin and Tonic is pretty darned simple. You take a highball glass (or any glass really), fill it with ice, add some gin and top it with tonic water to taste. A lot of people also add a garnish that nudges the flavor. The classics are lemon or lime, but Hendrick's has become famous for adding cucumber, due to the cucumber and rose botanicals in its spirit. I'm not going to get into the lime versus lemon debate. Use what you like and move on. This really is an easy drink to play with and find the balance you like. Most recipes will just tell you to dump in 1.5 ounces of gin, and fill up the tonic water to taste. Here is a classic proportion to get you started.
Gin and Tonic
1.5 oz. gin
3 oz. tonic water
garnish with a slice of lime or lemon
When I use my tonic syrup, I use .75 ounce syrup to 2 ounces soda water. You can buy bottled soda water for that, but I play with soda water enough that I bought myself an iSi Soda Siphon.
To keep things consistent with the gins, I used the Fever Tree with all of these drinks, and I did't modify them with any garnishes at all.
Of the London Drys, both of Tanquerays made their presence more known. The thing I like about Sipsmith's London Dry is that it is a lovely gin that I can just sip. Part of the reason for that is that it isn't so strident as many others, but it still has wonderful flavor. I feel like it didn't assert itself against the tonic as well as the Tanquerays. The regular London Dry felt like it made the best statement, but Tanqueray 10 was very present, and the citrus flavors it has played very well with the tonic water. At the end of the day, I'd probably just choose the regular Tanqueray for a London dry gin and tonic.
For the other three, which have very different flavors, from both the London Drys and each other, it is a lot harder to put a finger on the one I like best. They just taste really different, and that is definitely because the gins themselves are so different. The Monkey 47 has a complexity of spiciness and floral that is really fascinating, and it felt like the Hendrick's floral notes were very nicely accentuated. Though I will say that I can see the floweriness of Hendrick's being too strong for some people. It is really quite pronounced for me. The Zuidam Genever was a totally different drink, as genever is a different spirit. The maltiness of the genever just does totally different things with the tonic. I liked it quite a lot, though I wouldn't say a genever and tonic would be my top pick over the various gins, which seem to marry flavors with the tonic better.
Overall, from a practical viewpoint of cost and expected taste, I'll continue to make gin and tonics with Tanquery London Dry. I really like it is my standard well gin, and it does very well in a G&T. For a really special standard G&T, I'd say the Monkey 47 is a real treat, with Hendrick's also being just lovely. That said, Hendrick's has its own special way to roll as well.
Hendrick's Gin and Tonic
As I mentioned, Hendrick's has its own following based on its different flavor profile. The official recipe, on their site uses:
50 ml (1.75 oz.) gin
150 ml (5 oz.) tonic water
garnish with cucumber slices
Another twist on this combo is to put a touch of fresh ground black pepper on top as well. The cucumber gives it a different freshness than citrus, and the pepper gives it a little spicy aroma. I find the flavor of the pepper doesn't have that much impact unless you chew, which isn't normal cocktail imbibing behavior, but the aroma from the fresh pepper is definitely a nice little extra if you're feeling it. I used the San Pellagrino with this one because I'd run out of Fever Tree from the other drinks, and I was thinking that the SP cleaness would let the Hendrick's floral notes through even more. At the end of the day (and after having had several G&Ts), with the cucumber and pepper going on, I didn't notice the difference in the tonic water really.