Fifty Shades of the Gin and Tonic

One of the most constant and enduring of the highball cocktails, the gin & tonic has hid for years in plain sight. Until now. Regan Hoffman tracks its rise and reincarnation.

The gin and tonic gets in your nose first. The snap of carbonation sends lime oil directly into the sinuses, where it lingers with the sweetness of the tonic and the top notes of whatever gin you’ve chosen: juniper, coriander, the obscure orris root.

Then it gets in your head. Genteel British accents and crisp white linen, manicured lawns and the sweat of the tropics—images flash by at the speed of the first sip. It’s refreshing and comfortable; energizing and restrained; very, very proper and just a little bit louche.

All that from two ingredients and a piece of fruit.

Of all the highball cocktails, the gin and tonic has long managed to hide in plain sight. In the U.K., the G&T is as ever-present as London fog; in the U.S., it has drifted along, untouched by national trends. And in Spain, where it’s widely acknowledged to be “having a moment,” it’s become the first step toward a cocktail culture for a historically wine-centric country.

But the G&T is finally amidst a period of reinvention. Now, that synaptic snap may come from a specially designed balloon glass, bolstered by a bruised stalk of lemongrass and a few floating juniper berries, or disguised as a bubble tea with suspiciously bright green pearls.

How did this happen? Why is the G&T the only one of the highballs—which are all, at heart, a simple blend of spirit and fizz—to have resisted change for so long? And, most importantly, where will it go from here?

The modern-day gin and tonic was perfected in the middle of the 19th century. To ward off malaria, British sailors in the tropics were commonly prescribed a medicinal tincture of quinine derived from the bark of the cinchona tree; to take the edge off the bark’s powerfully bitter, astringent flavor, they mixed it with sugar and lime juice, another sailor’s prescription against scurvy. In 1850s India, soldiers added the crucial variants: carbonated water to dilute the potent brew, and gin, because—let’s face it—those gin rations weren’t going to drink themselves.

It’s tempting to pin the current state of the cocktail on the Spanish, the mad geniuses with a national reputation for tearing apart and rebuilding our most familiar flavors and foods. But aside from a version at El Bulli in which lemon wedges were injected with a gin-tonic solution tableside, Spanish variations are about form, not substance.

And there it sat for the next 150 years, traveling from India back to the motherland, throughout Europe and over to North America in one piece. In all that time, the only major change to the cocktail’s composition was the development of commercial tonic water around the 1870s, which uses a clear quinine extract rather than the dark red cinchona bark. The extract is even more powerfully bitter—and doesn’t taste like much else—so it’s deployed in today’s tonic in concentrations so low as to no longer have any medicinal effect.

Part of the G&T’s constant nature may be these medicinal origins, which place it on a level above mere workaday tippling. You wouldn’t presume to alter your penicillin dosage; why would you mess with that precious quinine? Then there’s its foreign cachet, that iconic origin story reinforced by the fact that until 10 years ago, there were only three commercially available tonics, all from the British Commonwealth (Schweppes from Britain, Canada Dry and Seagrams from Canada). Though they are now all owned by U.S. companies, the three still use heraldry and other monarchic signifiers in their branding.

A likely answer, though, is the flavor itself. The gin and tonic is not meant to be an easy drink, but a slow sip on a hot day, the bracing bitterness a wake-up call to a heat-dulled palate. Make it more approachable by removing that bitter edge, and G&T fans will disown it as a bastard child.

Even as the drink became ubiquitous, the root of the flavors that make the G&T so unique remained unknown. So far removed from its arboreal origins, tonic’s quinine component seemed the product of a brave new scientific world. And until the millennial gin revival began with the launch of “premium” gins like Tanqueray Ten and Hendricks, most citizen drinkers were ignorant to the spirit’s botanical composition. For much of the last century, the alchemy of flavors that bring gin and tonic together was a form of magic best left unquestioned, one final bit of mystique to cement its exotic status.

Today, that mystique has been thoroughly exploded. Bars serve bottled gin and tonics, gin and tonics on draft, handcrafted tonic syrups and ABV-boosted tonic liqueurs. Spain is awash in “gintonic” bars, where serious-faced bartenders crown drinks with a garden’s worth of herbs and other aromatics. There are hundreds of small-batch gin distillers, and those mysterious gin botanicals are consumer’s child’s play; one London distillery, Sacred Gin, even bottles each aromatic individually, selling all-coriander and all-orris gins to the discerning.

Tom Richter, the founder and creator of Tomr’s Tonic syrup, said it was his desire as a bartender to reveal those once-mysterious flavors that set him experimenting. “I needed something better than what was out there. The original flavor profile [of tonic]—that citrusy bitter flavor—is in the bark itself.”

It’s tempting to pin the current state of the cocktail on the Spanish, the mad geniuses with a national reputation for tearing apart and rebuilding our most familiar flavors and foods. But aside from a version at El Bulli in which lemon wedges were injected with a gin-tonic solution tableside, Spanish variations are about form, not substance. They are the masters of the ritual, obsessive sniffers matching notes in gins from around the world with one of the dozen or so commercial tonics now on the market. Though their excitement is unparalleled, they’re nowhere near the advanced maneuvers of their North American counterparts.

What is widely acknowledged as the first reexamination of the drink came in 2004, when Brian Van Flandern was challenged to make low-ABV cocktails that would support, not fight with, the food at Thomas Keller’s brand-new Per Se.

“I wanted to recreate all the classics—reduce the ethanol and use fresh ingredients. I almost skipped the gin and tonic,” he says. “I was like, ‘C’mon, what is it? It’s just gin and tonic water.’”

Instead, Van Flandern did some research. He tracked down powdered cinchona bark and began dry-shaking it with gin, sugar and lime juice, then topping with plain soda. It was a sensation, as was the nearly concurrent commercial launch of Fever-Tree tonic, which used cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Three years later, Booker & Dax’s Dave Arnold, then the director of culinary technology for the French Culinary Institute, began working on a high-tech version that carbonated the gin, quinine, and sugar together using carbon dioxide and clarified the lime juice using a rotovap and a chemist’s lab kit.

“The gin and tonic seems like a simple drink, but most of the time they’re terrible,” he has said about his quest to build a better G&T.

The gin and tonic’s reincarnation had help from the rise of amari, a historic breed of bitter—and often quinine-infused—liqueurs that have also been enjoying a revival. By shining a spotlight on the merits of bitter, challenging cocktails, spirits like Campari and Fernet paved the way for the G&T to come out into the open. Now they’re even being used together—at Boston’s Kirkland Tap & Trotter, lead bartender Tony Wang is pouring a version that uses both house-made tonic and Amaro Montenegro.

So where do we go now? For over a century, the gin and tonic survived because it managed to evade cocktail trends as they rose and fell. Now that it’s playing in the same sandbox as all the other drinks, is the G&T in danger of losing its singular identity?

Van Flandern isn’t worried. “As long as you use a distilled spirit that has juniper and you’re using quinine … and there’s carbonation, as far as I’m concerned it meets the parameters of a gin and tonic,” he says. Added flavors or improved techniques may come, but those archetypal elements will always register on our primal palate—just as long as it’s bitter enough. Says Richter, “If it’s not bitter, it’s not a gin and tonic.”