A “spring tonic” used to be a home remedy that was supposed to cleanse your system. As grannies would say, it was “good for what ails you.” This spring, I think I’ll take my tonic the tasty way — with gin.
Of course, the G&T was once medicinal. In the days of the British Empire, sailors boiled bitter cinchona bark, which contains quinine, sweetened it when they could and drank it with their daily ration of liquor to prevent malaria. So quinine water, or tonic water, became gin’s classic partner.
A lot of people taste gin and tonic, maybe at an outdoor bar in the summer, and think it’s an awful drink. They get a Christmas tree taste from the gin’s juniper notes. The tonic tastes flat, too sweet or, worse still, like the cola that last came out of the bar’s dispenser. Add a hunk of tired lime and a plastic glass, and you’ve got an unimpressive drink.
Luckily, the cocktail revival is giving gin and tonic a much-needed refresher, and if you’re not a fan, well, it’s time to give it a second try. Premium tonics made without high fructose corn syrup, sold in small bottles to stay effervescent, are available at retailers. And a few local mixologists are even making their own tonic, partly to showcase the flavors in today’s new gins.
Rom Wells, general manager at The Rookwood (1077 Celestial St., Mount Adams, 513-421-5555), was the one who put his “spring tonic” on my radar.
“I have been making my own tonic for some time, and it has been brought to my attention that a few other establishments have also started doing this — Igby’s, Japp’s and possibly Metropole. Seems like a trend — but mine is the best,” Wells says.
“Most people half-ass it since it is a ton of work to do it right.
I have to do it myself, since I can’t use kitchen labor in good conscience,” he continues. Wells goes on to describe a process during which he strains the quinine syrup through six chinois — professional strainers — and three cone filters.
“I buy quinine in powder form, and $600 worth is pretty easy to hold in your hand. I sell it at a loss but it is really, really popular,” Wells explains.
He started off by experimenting with Portland, Ore., bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s recipe, which he tweaked using black Persian lime granules from Colonel De’s at Findlay Market. That gave it a smokiness he liked, but still he kept experimenting.
He’s pleased with the recipe he has now, but warns that customers may not be used to the way the drink looks.
“People are like, ‘Brown tonic?’ Yeah, that’s unique,” he says.
At Japp’s Since 1879 (1134 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1524), mixologist Molly Wellman says that the herbs and botanicals in her house-made tonic give it a little color, too, but that doesn’t seem to affect its popularity.
“When I make a batch, it goes so quick!” Wellman says with a laugh. “It never lasts through a week.”
As with all things cocktailian, Wellman loves the history and the romance behind “quinine water,” telling me tales about its origin in Peru, where it was credited with saving the viceroy’s wife from an illness.
Wellman is looking to the future of tonic as well. She’s putting the finishing touches on a plan to bottle and sell her own line of mixers, including tonic, cola syrup and ginger syrup. She’s fine-tuning the flavors and working on the logistics now, and promises to let CityBeat readers know as soon as the products are ready to sell.
When Igby’s (122 E. Sixth St., Downtown, 513-246-4396) came to town, they brought consultant Brian Van Flandern to help develop their house-made tonic syrup. Igby’s General Manager Mike Schroeder says they use quinine powder from Australia to make a tonic that doesn’t taste like it’s “off the gun.”
“We like it with Hendrick’s Gin, which is less junipery and just easier to drink,” he explains.
The result was a very popular cocktail-of-the-month for March, with simple syrup, lime juice, quinine, gin and a splash of soda.
While we wait for Wellman’s tonic to arrive at retail, home cocktail mixers have to settle for what’s already available.
My friends at cocktailians.com did a “Tonic Water Shootout” — a blind taste-test of premium and easy-to-find brands. In the premium group, Fever-Tree Mediterranean — sweetened with cane sugar — was the top vote-getter, and Canada Dry beat Schweppes in the grocery store round.
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