As the name suggests, there are really only two components to a gin and tonic (unless you count the lime), which means only two ways to screw it up. It's easy enough to avoid a bad gin. Bad tonic water, though, is the rule, not the exception. Look at a label and you'll see cheap high-fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient in almost all of them. There's a better way.
Tonic is so bad, in fact—and so predominantly used with gin—that it convinces some people that the taste they don't like is gin. And can you blame them? The vast majority store-bought tonics are like soda pop with a little bitterness to them. There's no nuance to them. They're bad, and when they're not bad, they're boring.
We can fix that.
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The gin and tonic was built backwards. Most cocktails start with a spirit and add a mixer to change its flavor. The G&T began the other way. Beginning back in the 1600s British soldiers had to take a daily ration of quinine, which was used for its anti-malarial properties, and had a very bitter taste. In the early 1800s they started adding gin to it (and sugar, water, and lime) to improve the flavor. Yes, the spirit was added to the mixer to improve the mixer's flavor.
The tonic of the 1600s (quinine, sugar, and water) bore very little resemblance to what we now know as tonic water. For starters, it used real quinine, which was taken from the bark of the cinchona tree (also known as the "fever tree" because it helped allay said symptoms). It also used real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup. And, perhaps most importantly, it wasn't bubbly and carbonated. Carbonation hadn't even been invented at the time.
It wasn't until the 1850s that tonic was combined with carbonated water and sold as a mixture by Schweppes. That was when it went from "tonic" to "tonic water."
Tonic water was convenient, yes, but it lost something in the pre-packaging. You could control the ratio of tonic water to gin, but you couldn't control the ratio of quinine to water. In other words, getting more quinine flavor necessitated watering down your drink. Not ideal. Over time, most companies switched to synthetic quinine, too, which altered the flavor further. Luckily, all is not lost.
The Better Way
Welcome to the wonderful world of tonic syrups and tonic liqueurs! Many astute bar-people realized that widely available tonic water is typically nasty. This is why you can buy tonic syrups and tonic liqueurs. They are essentially, tonic water, minus the water.
This may be the single easiest way to take your home bar to the next level. You make your friends a drink they think they know, then blow their minds with how much better yours is.
The magic of tonic syrup or liqueur is that it gives you complete control over the flavor. You pour in the syrup and then add soda water to taste. Then add gin, then add lime. Not bitter enough? Add more syrup. Too bitter? Hit the SodaStream again. It's really easy to tweak. Not only that, most of these syrups are made with vastly superior ingredients, i.e. real quinine (from cinchona bark) and real sugar. I've seen people who thought they hate gin and tonics light up when a bartender insisted they try a real one. The difference is night and day.
The best tonic that I've tried is Commonwealth Tonic Liqueur, made by Bittermens in Brooklyn, and there's a reason why: It's 21-percent alcohol by volume. That means you're watering down your gin and tonic even less. It's even good on its own, mixed with some soda water. For a G&T Bittermens recommends:
- 1 1/2 oz of London Dry Gin (Beefeater or Tanqueray)
- 3/4 oz Commonwealth Tonic Cordial
- 5 drops Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
- 4 ounces of soda water
- Grapefruit twist
This makes for a "very bitter, very dry" G&T, and having had several made by Sother Teague at Amor y Amargo in NYC I can tell you it's fantastic, but again, tweak the ratios to your taste. But there's a catch: Commonwealth is hard to find, and it's ABV means it can't be shipped to many states (you can try here). But fear not, there are other great alternatives.
There are a ton of non-alcoholic tonic syrups which are widely available and can be shipped anywhere. Our friends at Boston Magazine recommend Jack Rudy Cocktail Co Small Batch Tonic, Tomr's Handcrafted Tonic Syrup Concentrate, and John's Premium Tonic Syrup. You should also check out the new Tonic Syrup from Small Hand Foods. We've tried some of their other stuff, and they supply syrups to a lot of the top bars in San Francisco, so it would definitely be worth a try. Dean and Deluca makes one, and hell, even SodaStream has their own (though it seems to be universally loathed). Search around and find one you love.
Now, these syrups aren't cheap, but they're pretty concentrated, and if you're serious about gin and tonics, they're absolutely worth it. There is, however, a more cost-effective method.
The DIY Way
Or, if you've got the time and energy, and you want to control every aspect of the drink, you can make your own tonic syrup from scratch without too much hassle. Legendary Portland bartender Jeffery Morgenthaler has a recipe online which is by all accounts fantastic. Toby Cecchini has one that gets just as many raves, as does the also legendary Imbibe Magazine. Any of those will give you a great starting point for your experimentation.
Most of the obscure ingredients—like fresh lemongrass, allspice berries, citric acid—can be found at most health food stores. The one piece you might have trouble finding is cinchona bark. Luckily, you can order it online for cheap. The best deal we've found is $3.35 for an ounce of dried bark from the Penn Herb Co. Most of the recipes call for it to be powdered (Penn Herb sells it cut), but if you toss it in a coffee grinder you should be able to powder it with very little effort.
The Lazy Way
While we maintain that the best way is to get tonic syrup or liqueur and add your own soda water, that's too much for some people. Fine. Be that way. In that case, the best thing to do is upgrade your tonic water. There are good tonic waters out there, made with real cinchona and sugar rather than corn syrup and mystery chemicals.
Fever-Tree, named after the cinchona itself, makes a good one (the Mediterranean version is better than the Indian version). Ingredients: Spring Water, Cane Sugar, Citric Acid, Natural Flavors, Natural Quinine. Simple. Done. There's also Fentimans and Q-Dry. Any of those will be an immediate improvement over whatever you're using now.
But trust us, the syrup is worth it.