Broadly speaking, the Gin & Tonic is appreciated for its merits as a go-to, refreshing cocktail. It’s generally thought of as a straightforward, simple drink with a modicum of sophistication but no pretension–something that can be ordered at a hole-in-the-wall or upscale venue without fear of censure. But this line of thinking, as well-meaning and not entirely misplaced as it is, can underestimate Gin & Tonics’ potential, and subscribing to it means running the risk that you will remain unaware of the complexity a Gin & Tonic can embody when made with premium ingredients, thoughtful flavor combinations, and careful presentation.
The Craft Gin Tonic Revolution
In Spain, Gin Tonics (as they are called there–no ampersand) are understood and respected as an artform thanks to the efforts of Spanish chefs who, recognizing their shared love for the classic drink, began musing on and sharing recipes for creative, elevated versions with colleagues. What started as a trend among restaurant industry insiders quickly expanded. Now, from San Sebastian to Seville, Spanish bars, restaurants, and specialty “gintonerias” are serving inspired takes on the cocktail using aromatics and botanicals to accentuate and complement the mosaic of flavors represented in the ever-expanding world of craft gin.
Spanish-style Gin Tonics have been slow to invade the United States, but they have begun to make inroads and now have a small but growing cadre of devotees committee to replicating the gintoneria experience stateside. Case in point: Aro Bar de Tapas in Williamsville, New York, just outside of Buffalo, where the Gin Tonic program is as essential to the restaurant’s character and as true to its Spanish antecedents as the dinner menu’s patatas bravas and jamón ibérico. There, chef Scott Kollig, whose training included a stint at José Andrés’s Minibar in Washington, D.C., is busy experimenting with herbs, spices, tonic variations, color, sweetness levels, and more than 90 types of gin to weekly devise new, intriguing iterations of the historic restorative to add to Aro’s growing Gin Tonic repertoire.
Building a Gin Tonic
Eager to expand my Gin & Tonic horizons, I sat down with Aro co-owner Jeremy Horwitz to discuss Aro’s bar program and the Spanish Gin Tonic genre.
According to Horwitz, the premise is far from complicated: start with relatively simple ingredients (gin, tonic), and then make things more nuanced and more complex by playing up the botanicals that are in the gin of your choice and making the most of the interesting differences between tonics on the market.
At Aro, that premise plays out in varied and often beautiful ways. On a recent trip, specials included the Violet Beauregarde–a spring-appropriate, azure-tinted cocktail made with Magellan Gin, a French spirit that owes it natural blue color to an infusion of irises, and Fever Tree Mediterranean, a premium tonic made from the essential oils of coastal flowers, fruits, and herbs. To enhance the flavor profile of the gin, add depth, and complement the striking if subtle color, Aro adds micro violet blossoms, orange peels, and nutmeg.
Though far from cloying, the Violet Beauregarde represents one of Aro’s sweeter takes. A second special veered more herbal and savory by playing up the vegetal and citrus qualities in Rutte Celery Gin with Fever Tree, celery cocktail bitters, and fresh celery and lemon peel. Still other Aro Gin Tonics feature jasmine, star anise, licorice, peppers, Hellfire bitters, and even dry ice.
Not that there aren’t rules. To be a true Gin Tonic, and not a gin cocktail that just happens to have tonic in it, the drink shouldn’t be adulterated with additional spirits or flavored syrups.
Making Gin Tonics at Home
If you can’t get to Aro anytime soon, you can recreate the Gin Tonic experience at home. Horwitz recommends starting with a bottle of Fever Tree and a good quality gin (this isn’t the time for well liquor). In Horwitz’s experience Tommyrotter is universally well received, even by people who think they don’t like gin, making it a perfect entry point for a home Gin Tonic. If Tommyrotter isn’t available near you, Horwitz recommends Beefeater 24, which he calls a big step up over basic Beefeater.
Because both gins use citrus in the distillation process, Horwitz advises the home bartender to add the peels of grapefruit, orange, lemon, and/or lime to your glass before adding your gin (Aro uses two ounces of spirits per cocktail). If you have time, let the gin and peels rest together for a few minutes to give everything a chance to settle and marry; then, add your tonic and give the whole thing one quick stir, at most, so as not to break the bubbles. As for the proper ratio of tonic to gin, opinions differ, but Horwitz suggests starting with one part gin to two or three parts tonic.
“Those elements along with nice big ice cubes that aren’t going to dilute your drink too quickly will give you a really, really nice Gin Tonic at home,” Horwitz assured me.
Once you’ve mastered this baseline Gin Tonic, you are ready to begin playing around with the recipe. Is your favorite gin distilled with cacia root? Then you might add a cinnamon stick to your Gin Tonic. You could also take a cue from the professionals and dabble in more advanced drink-building techniques:
“There are some people who will take extreme additional steps. They will take the actual bottle of Fever Tree and a bar spoon, and they will pour the Fever-Tree onto the bar spoon into the glass so as to prevent the carbonation from escaping from the tonic as it’s being made.”
The Case for Premium Ingredients
All the botanicals and bar techniques will be for naught, however, if you are using inferior gin or tonic to build your drink. Horwitz calls the quality of those ingredients “critically important” to Gin Tonics, explaining that Aro’s program is 100% out of bottle–meaning they don’t use tonic from soda guns, despite it being the cheaper, easier option. For some Gin Tonic applications, he likes Q Tonic made with agave or, if you want to try a tonic concentrate, he suggests Jack Rudy. But Fever Tree is the current house favorite, and it is the basis of most of Aro’s drinks. Horwitz described the flavor as “very, very clean,” a quality he chalks up to its use of natural cane sugar over the high-fructose corn syrup present in tonics of lesser quality.
“It is sort of geeky and ridiculous to even care about these things. But to find a way to preserve and enhance whatever the natural flavor is of the constituent ingredients we’re using; that’s pretty important to us.”