When Patrick Smith, beverage director for New York’s Union Square Hospitality Group, was developing the menu for Maialino (vicino), he hadn’t exactly planned to create a Gin & Tonic. The restaurant, which styles itself as a Roman trattoria complete with an exclusively Italian wine list, aimed to serve drinks with ingredients that could be found at any authentic neighborhood restaurant in Italy. While trattorias don’t typically have cocktail programs, or even physical bars, Smith set out to create a drinks list that could be made with the restaurant style’s typically sparse selection: often only “a couple bottles of amaro, a bottle of rum and a bottle of Scotch collecting dust,” he says.
The resulting menu leaned heavily toward strong and stirred cocktails, featuring two Martinis, a Negroni and a Godfather. But something was missing. “We really wanted something that would be a true aperitivo, very refreshing, bright and lifted,” recalls Smith. His E Tonico, which translates to “and tonic,” is just that.
The rose-hued cocktail reads like a cross between a traditional Negroni and a G&T. At the base of the drink is a blend of gins from New York Distilling Co.: Perry’s Tot, “a very traditional navy-strength,” according to Smith, and Dorothy Parker, a lower-ABV, more botanical spirit. It’s a combination that he says provides both floral roundness and a bracing hit of juniper. Instead of Campari, Smith turns to Mulassano Bitter, a lighter Italian liqueur with a slightly lower proof to reinforce the drink’s refreshing profile; in lieu of sweet vermouth, he uses Cocchi’s Vermouth di Torino Extra Dry, a newer aromatized wine from the cult-favorite producer. To finish, the drink is topped with Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic, which introduces notes of rosemary and lemon.
Maialino isn’t the only restaurant putting an Italian bent on the easy-drinking staple. The Austin, Texas bar In Plain Sight marries the simple highball with the Americano in their Kahlo Americano, made with Cappelletti aperitivo liqueur, Barolo Chinato and housemade Champagne cordial. New York’s Ci Siamo, meanwhile, highlights seasonal flavors in its Gin-Tonic; the current variation leans into winter citrus with a splash of lemon juice alongside grapefruit and thyme garnishes. Also in New York, Mel’s bar director Matt Reysen likewise takes a seasonal approach to the bar’s Gin Tonica, a G&T doctored with aperitivo liqueurs and other modifiers. The current version calls on blood orange gin, Cappelletti and a citrusy elderflower tonic water.
“I figured it was a no-brainer,” says Reysen. “We love spritzes and bubbly beverages, and the G&T is such a pinnacle of that type of drink, so I had to highlight it.”
Smith and Reysen say their Gin & Tonics are commonly ordered at the beginning of the meal. Food pairing is key to the highball’s success: Mel’s has even taken a culinary approach by incorporating the wood-fired pizza oven, which is situated next to the bar, into various elements in the drink, from charred rhubarb to burnt grapefruit.
The modern Gin & Tonic is “not this super high-octane beverage that we were drinking 10 years ago out of a soda gun,” says Reysen. And though it originated in India, is indispensable to Spanish drinking culture and is firmly established as part of American happy hours, its light and bright profile embodies that easy-drinking Italian aperitivo mindset. “When [people] see something on the menu that they know and understand, but they get it in a way that is super flavorful and has this bursting energy, I think it surprises them,” says Reysen. “People appreciate that type of drink more than the super complicated.”