The Taste of Civilization
The trappings of Victorian England are not terribly fashionable these days: debtors’ prison, child labour and gunboat colonialism generally raise the eyebrow of polite company and may even elicit a stiff reproach. Even the most felicitous of 19th century adornments (whalebone corsets, pith helmets) are rarely seen on the street today. I suppose that all it takes is a couple of opium wars to tarnish the reputation of an entire era.
Be that as it may, there is one relic of Queen Victoria’s reign that remains as indispensable today as it was 150 years ago: the gin and tonic. Maybe it’s just my spats talking, but as far as I’m concerned, its astringent zing is the taste of civilization itself. Wine has the dubious distinction of being prehistoric — even Palaeolithic nomads could make a reasonable facsimile of Beaujolais, given some crushed fruit and a hollow rock where it can ferment in peace. However, it would hardly occur to a caveman to juxtapose bitterness, citrus and effervescence in a tumbler of Waterford crystal. In other words, gin and tonic is the kind of complex cuisine that only the better sort of Empire could devise.
The G&T’s strange flavours are a relic of the British occupation of the malarial parts of the world. In order to stave off the disease, British army officers were fed a steady diet of quinine, a pharmaceutical extract from the Peruvian cinchona tree. To make this bitter drug easier to swallow, the officers would add sugar and soda water. Somehow, gin leaked into this “tonic” and the dosage migrated to the cocktail hour. As Winston Churchill said, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Gin was the most natural additive because in the 18th century, it was the beverage of choice for every English-speaking man, woman and child; at one point, London alone boasted about 7,500 shops dedicated to selling the “mother’s milk.” On its own, gin was hardly a prestigious drink, but with tonic it became associated with Eastern exoticism and Imperial power. As the British army criss-crossed the globe, it brought with it a taste for this oddest of cocktails. The rest, as they say, is history.
Conventional wisdom holds that the key to a good gin and tonic is to use the best gin. However, no one can agree on what the best gin is: traditionalists often hold by Tanqueray London Dry Gin or Bombay Sapphire. Hendrick’s Gin or North Shore Distillery’s Gin No. 6 appeal to a more modern sensibility. Myself, I prefer Plymouth Gin, a nearly extinct style made by only one distillery (see the tasting notes for more). To make your own informed choice requires an understanding of how this empire liquid is made.
In essence, gin is a neutral grain spirit that’s made from wheat, rye or corn in highly efficient column stills. These modern stills make it light, clean and high in alcohol. In this sense, it’s not too different from vodka. However, gin is flavoured by infusing the spirit with juniper berries and other botanicals, like coriander seeds, orange peel and cassia bark. This imparts gin’s distinctive aromatic complexity.
It came to England from the Netherlands — gin is the anglicization of the Dutch liquor Genever. However, proper Genever is made with heavier grains like barley in low-efficiency pot stills, thus giving it a slightly malty taste. Authentic Genever is hard to find outside of Europe, but De Kuyper’s Geneva Gin is a decent reproduction that’s distilled in Canada. Genever’s earthy flavour makes it ill-suited to the subtle bite of tonic water — the Dutch drink Genever neat with a side of pickled herring. I’m not sure why they do this; as far as I know, the anti-malarial qualities of herring are still a matter of scientific dispute.
In England and North America, the most popular style of gin is called London Dry Gin. Despite its name, it doesn’t have to be made in London to qualify for the moniker; it just needs to be crafted in a traditional way. Sugar and colourings are not permitted in London Dry Gin. Also, the liquid is flavoured in a very particular way. The plain spirit is re-distilled a final time through a special basket containing the botanical herbs. As a vapour, the gin gently absorbs the oils and aromas from the herbs before re-condensing into a liquid. (Cheaper gin not qualifying for the “London Dry” label is made by simply combining a neutral spirit with juniper juice — an easier process resulting in less subtle flavours.)
Gin and tonic fanatics will not only agonize over which gin to employ, but which tonic to use as mixer. In the last few years, designer tonics have begun to infiltrate specialty food shops. For example, Q Tonic is made with hand-picked Peruvian quinine and organic agave as a sweetener — as a result, it boasts a subtle, clean and charming flavour. Another brand, Fever-Tree, uses quinine harvested from the Rwanda-Congo border and pure cane sugar. This tonic has an exceptionally fine mousse with a pronounced note of citrus. Despite these differences, these tonics are primarily similar: both are much drier than Schweppes or Canada Dry; both have a soft character that cedes the limelight to the gin; and both are absurdly expensive.
These designer tonics are lovely, but with their organic ingredients, they are a completely modern affair — they don’t replicate the historical G&T. This is because the tonic that we use today is dramatically less bitter than its Victorian ancestor. The effective treatment of malaria requires as much as 350 milligrams of harsh quinine, but commercial tonics contain only about 20 milligrams per serving. If you strive for historical accuracy, my advice is to crush a handful of aspirin into the tumbler. It returns the G&T to its medicinal origins. Of course it won’t stave off malaria, but it may prevent heart disease.
Beefeater London Dry Gin ($24.95)
This classic gin is named after the guards at the Tower of London, but I find it unpatriotic that they used the slang term “Beefeater” instead of the proper title, to whit “Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary.” In any case, this gin is spicy and complex. It shows a harsh edge, but it also has a most vivid botanical character for those who love juniper.
Plymouth Gin ($26.95)
“Plymouth Gin” is a protected denomination — unlike London Dry Gin, the law requires that Plymouth Gin be made only in Plymouth. Since there is only one distillery in Plymouth, this makes this bottle somewhat of a rara avis. Gin from Plymouth style is traditionally rounder and fruitier than the London style. This excellent gin is smooth, fragrant and oily from beginning to end. Orange rind and pine needles feature prominently on the nose and palate. It makes a very velvety G&T.
Tanqueray London Dry Gin ($26.95)
Tanqueray is distilled 4 times, a painstaking process by which subtle impurities are gradually removed. As a result, this is among the softest, cleanest and driest of gins. It has a gentle bouquet with grassy aromas and only a modicum of juniper. Although it has a gentle attack, it offers great texture, substantial body and a persistent finish. It integrates very well with quinine, making a harmonious but tart cocktail.
Bombay Sapphire ($27.45)
The recipe for Bombay Sapphire dates back to 1761 and involves a wide variety of botanical ingredients, including licorice, almonds, coriander and something with the intriguing name “grains of paradise.” It is a light, fragrant and almost floral gin with great smoothness and elegance. If you are a fan of this ethereal style, I recommend splurging on Fever-Tree or Q Tonic — the brazen flavours in less expensive tonic waters will overwhelm the Sapphire’s delicate flavours.
Gin and Tonic
In a world of increasingly elaborate (and often sweetened) cocktails, the classic G&T is simple, dry and refreshing:
Place 2 cubes of ice in a tumbler.
Add 1.5 ounces of gin, a squeeze of lime, and tonic water to fill.
Garnish with a fresh slice of lime.
Repeat, to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan.
A modern variation replaces the lime with a slice of cucumber. You can increase the cucumber quotient even further by muddling it — crushing a few slices with a pestle and then shaking the gin, cucumber and ice in a cocktail mixer before straining into a glass. This creates a herbal drink that often suits those who prefer Hendrick’s, a dry Scottish gin that already carries an idiosyncratic note of cucumber.