Spirits Feature

Tonic Boom

For one of the world’s simplest drinks, the Gin and Tonic has become surprisingly complex. But these days, it’s not gin that’s shaking things up. Rather, it’s tonic water, which is blossoming into a category as compellingly diverse as the world of gin.

While the wild diversity of gin styles on the market today may be the primary motive for building better tonics, cocktails can go far beyond the stolid pairing with gin.
It’s about time, when you take into account that tonic is the G&T’s raison d’être. Kevin Law-Smith, founder of East Imperial, vividly remembers his grandparents mixing their own tonics to stave off malaria in Kenya, where he grew up.

“Originally, tonic water was disgusting,” he says. “In the army, they just mixed bark dust [from the cinchona tree, the source of quinine] with water. It’s horribly bitter, doesn’t dissolve well, and gets stuck in your throat, leading to fits of hacking.” Gin turned out to be key in getting the medicine down, he explains. “Tonic wasn’t very soluble in water. Gin made it so, and the oils from the spirits and botanicals actually fuse with tonic to make it more palatable. You might hate gin and hate tonic, but the two together become something drinkable.”

By 1820, Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou had figured out how to extract and purify quinine, so the tonic Law-Smith’s grandparents were drinking was much improved. In honor of the stripped-down version they would have known, made before the age of cheap sweeteners and artificial flavors, Law-Smith created East Imperial’s Old World Tonic. It’s remarkably austere, with the lowest sugar content of any tonic on the market, and makes a terrifically dry, brisk G&T. He also created it with the New Western style of gin in mind—the brash type popular today, which de-emphasizes juniper in favor of bold notes of citrus, florals and spice. When paired with new gins like Monkey 47 or Sipsmith, the Old World Tonic allows their complex flavors to shine through.

However, as Law-Smith found out, the Old World Tonic is so spare in its flavor—just quinine and bubbles, really—that it gets run over by more potent gins and makes too bitter a drink for some palates. So, Law-Smith formulated Burma Tonic, bumping up the sugar, quinine and citric acid, producing a more robust tonic. He pegs it as a natural for another cocktail his grandparents enjoyed, the Pink Gin. Another drink with historical roots, Pink Gin is just gin reddened by Angostura bitters, which were used to ward off seasickness in the British Navy; the gin was added to make the bitters more palatable. Law-Smith’s grandmother had another use: She would rub bitters on her skin, as well as drink them, to ward off mosquitoes. “She would drink long pink tonics in the morning and Pink Gins with tonic in the afternoon,” he says. “The Burma is made to have a fullness that stands up to the bitters.”

Earlier this year, Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Tonic—an early boutique tonic water that hit the market just a year behind category-leading Fever Tree—released his Indian Tonic to address the same need that inspired Law-Smith to create Burma Tonic. “Our original tonic was made for the new-school gins,” says Silbert. “But with a London dry, like Tanqueray or Beefeater, our tonic could get run over, so we beefed up the sweetness and the bitterness.” The Indian Tonic is deftly balanced between sweet and bitter, suggesting that dryness in tonic, much like in riesling, isn’t always the most useful metric. Much as I enjoy the sparseness of the original Q Tonic and the East Imperial Old World, a few extra grams of sugar accompanied by more quinine appears to make a tonic that better accompanies a wider array of gins.

This notion is borne out by Mixwell, from a company based in Los Angeles. Their new tonic is a little sweeter and has an earthiness supplied by the addition of dandelion flowers. Created by longtime bartender and consultant Billy Ray, Mixwell is intended to be a versatile and compatible tonic, and it is. Another tonic, just starting to become available throughout the US, is Spain’s 1724, which was created by Marc and Manuel Giró, the brothers behind Gin Mare. Given that Barcelona-based Gin Mare has a truly unique profile—it’s infused with local botanicals like Arbequina olives, rosemary and thyme, creating an herbal tang—the brothers approached tonic in a way similar to Mixwell’s, backing off on bitterness to achieve a somewhat sweeter profile that has a broader application with new-wave gins.

While the wild diversity of gin styles on the market today may be the primary motive for building better tonics, cocktails can go far beyond the stolid pairing with gin. For instance, rhum agricole or cachaça and tonic is fantastic. The Portuguese drink white Port and tonic in the summer. When lightly splashed into a fairly dry Margarita, a flavored tonic like East Imperial Yuzu elevates the citrus tones while providing a tidy crispness. The new tonics are starting to appear on various cocktail menus, as well. Earlier this year, at Scarpetta in Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel, the Garden Highball featured cucumber, basil and tomato-infused vodka with East Imperial Yuzu Tonic, while the Singapore bar Highball combined it with burnt orange–infused Aperol and Bluecoat gin in its Ration No. 2 cocktail.

We’ll see how much tonic expansion the market can handle. I was saddened to find out that Bette Jane’s, a popular new upstart that was producing an excellent basic tonic, as well as a series of five hopped tonics, is shutting down. Even so, a number of new tonic waters have debuted in Europe this year and are no doubt destined for our shores.

Few people ponder the best way to make a Gin and Tonic, but it’s worth knowing. For instance, Law-Smith sells East Imperial in 150 ml bottles, noting that one bottle makes one drink when mixed with a standard 50 ml of gin. (A problem with the 200 ml bottle, he says, is there’s always 50 ml left.) His error is in thinking a 3:1 ratio of tonic to gin is correct. That approach inevitably results in a rhetorical, “Is there any gin in this?” from my wife. A better ratio is 2:1. Look for gins with an ABV of 43 percent or higher (Tanqueray and Monkey 47 are both 47 percent). Slowly add very cold tonic to very cold gin (to preserve carbonation), slip in a few ice cubes, and give it one gentle swirl. Finish with a mere twist of lime, as anything more in this age of bountifully flavored gins and tonics might upset an already precarious balance.

photo by Daniel Krieger; illustration by Vivian Ho

This feature appears in the print edition of the October 2017.
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