I come from a long line of gin and tonic drinkers. “T & T” or Tanqueray and Tonic, is the standard cocktail order in my family, occasionally supplanted with Hendrick’s or Bombay Sapphire, lots of ice, extra lime. I’ve had some sub-par gin and tonics in my college days (bad gin, flat tonic, no ice), but it wasn’t until recently that I looked more closely at the components in my favorite cocktail and sought to make them, and the ensuing cocktail, better. It’s a simple cocktail right? Three ingredients, minimal muss and fuss; but you’d be amazed at the difference a few quality ingredients can make.
When I was on safari in Africa, we drank a lot of gin and tonics. We didn’t need any convincing, but real tonic water actually contains quinine, which the British used in their battle against malaria. Real tonic is actually a murky brown color, due to the quinine bark its made from. Known as a natural medicinal muscle relaxant, people have used quinine for centuries to mellow out. The Schweppes in our gin and tonics in Africa differed vastly from the Schweppes we buy in America. Made with real sugar (not high fructose corn syrup) and real quinine, it tasted cleaner, purer, all around better. If you visit Ninety Acres in Peapack, NJ and order a gin and tonic, it will be served with their house-made tonic. That real quinine bark gives the drink a sort of dirty overcast, but also gives it stellar flavor. Tonic makes a huge impact on how your cocktail tastes. Why use a high quality gin if you’re going to drown it out with crappy tonic? As for gin, I used to be a Tanqueray devotee, but have recently converted to Henderick’s. Voted the best gin in the world by the Wall Street Journal in 2003, Henderick’s has a subtle rose flavor and a cool cucumber flavor that offset the usual herbal and juniper laden gin flavorings.
- 4 cups water
- ¼ cup (1 ounce/20 grams) cinchona bark, powdered (a coffee grinder does this well)
- 3-4 cups rich simple syrup (by volume, two parts sugar to one of boiling water, stirred to dissolve)
- Zest of 3 limes, cut into strips
- Zest of 3 lemons, cut into strips
- Zest of 2 grapefruits, cut into strips
- 1 cup chopped lemongrass (3-4 stalks)
- 8 whole allspice berries
- 2 whole cardamom pods
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup citric acid (lemon salt)
- In a saucepan, combine the water with all the other ingredients except the citric acid and simmer, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Off the heat, add the citric acid, and pass through a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth or a towel. Allow this mixture to rest for 30 minutes, then pour off the resulting clear liquid, leaving behind the sediment that remains on the bottom.
- Cover and refrigerate until needed. Add a tablespoon at a time to your club soda until you reach your desired flavor and sweetness.
- Add more lime, lemon, grapefruit, even herbs like lavender to the syrup mixture depending on your taste and preference.
Heaven on earth for gin and tonic lovers takes shape at Cata in NYC. Specializing in tapas and 22 varieties of gin and tonics, Cata on the Lower East Side brings two perfect and complementary components together in happy harmony. Served with your bottle of tonic on the side and plenty of ice in your glass, one gin and tonic at Cata will keep you happy for a while. The endless flavor, gin, and tonic combinations will make your head spin, but I doubt you can really go wrong. When I visited we tried a tangy grapefruit and lemongrass variety and another with spicy red chili peppers spiked with lime. Both excellent, and both perfect with our accompanying tapas.
Another gin and tonic haven in NYC is Gin Palace. You’d expect a place with that name to get it right, and they do. Located in the East Village, Gin Palace offers 64 varieties of gin. They also carry an impressive array of tonic options, all free of high fructose corn syrup.
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