The Gin and Tonic occupies a weird place in the summer drinking landscape. It’s a drink that immediately comes to mind when the topic of warm-weather indulging comes up. But it’s not a drink that many people devote a lot of thought to, the way they would to the construction of, say, a Daiquiri or Mojito. Put some ice in a glass, add gin, top with tonic, lime wedge, dunzo. You can make the drink with your eyes closed and, judging by the quality of most of the G&Ts one is handed between Memorial Day and Labor Day, that is what many people do.
The Top Three
But, like any mixed drink, there is a platonic ideal most people hold in their head—a memory of flavor and snap they can almost taste when they think about it. To find out precisely which combination of gin and tonic yields that ideal, PUNCH assembled a panel of judges to blind-taste 15 versions of the drink, most culled from bartenders from across the country, but some simply combinations of classic gin and tonic brands assembled by PUNCH Assistant Editor Chloe Frechette.
“This is a drink that bartenders have either really thought about or given zero thought to,” declared Tristan Willey, one of the panelists. Another panelist, Stephen Palahach of Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, made it clear that he much preferred the former sort of barkeep. “It’s cool to have a G&T that has character, instead of meeting expectations and being crappy,” he said. Joining them as judges were Talia Baiocchi, PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, and myself.
The Gin and Tonic’s origins can be traced back to the British military, which had a malaria problem in 19th-century India. Quinine, derived from cinchona tree bark, was the fix-all, but quinine didn’t taste very good. Gin, however, did, and had other pleasant side effects. The two were introduced and a drink was born. Even after malaria was under control, the drink prospered on its own merits. It remained largely a British thing until after WWII, when it made the leap to the States, along with commercially available tonic water.
And here it has remained ever since: popular, easy, vaguely WASP-y, but accessible to all. The name is the recipe, after all; anybody could make it. It was dependable and maybe a tad boring, that is until the Spanish upset the juniper cart.
The Spanish love Gin and Tonics, but they love them their way, which involves a huge goblet, a terrarium’s worth of botanicals and a lot of fuss and show. This was good for the drink’s stock; interest in the humble old G&T soared worldwide as other countries, including the U.S., mimicked the Spaniards’ flair. But it also muddied the waters, leading to questions of what a G&T was anyway. Was it the spartan, reserved highball of yore or a fishbowl with tons of personality?
Willey isn’t a fan of the new-wave Gin and Tonics. “I hate the Spanish-style garnish,” he said. “They don’t add anything, and they float in your drink.” He added, “It’s like when all cocktail menus were Martini menus. Now we’re having Gin and Tonic menus, when a Gin and Tonic is the thing itself.”
Only one of the dozen-plus drinks in the tasting called for a Spanish-like presentation. The others were largely straightforward. Some did away with the traditional lime wedge garnish, which the judges considered a mistake, seeing the squeeze of lime as an essential third ingredient in the drink.
Regarding gin, the panelists didn’t necessarily pledge allegiance to one brand or another, though it was acknowledged that strong-flavored London dry styles like Beefeater and Tanqueray were well up to the task, while a softer gin like Plymouth was entirely the wrong man for the job. And Willey showed no interest in what a pricey boutique gin might bring to the party. “I don’t necessarily want a craft Gin and Tonic,” he said. “I’m not going to spend $47 on a gin for a drink that I’m going to crush in 30 seconds by the pool.”
The choice of tonic proved a complex matter as well. Conventional wisdom in cocktail circles has long been that artisanal brands like Fever-Tree and Q are of better quality, and that traditional commercial brands like Schweppes are substandard and sweetish. Yet, many respected cocktail bars use Schweppes—often for cost reasons—and will defend it. Is Schweppes really that bad? And are the craft brands really that much better? The judges remained unconvinced by the prevailing dogma, but were adamant that coldness and a lively effervescence was of utmost importance where tonic was concerned.
Many of the G&Ts did not make much of an impression on the panelists, who described them variously as boring, basic, flat, too sweet and—worst of all—“normal.”
Perhaps because of this ocean of dullness, a true outlier eventually triumphed. It came to the table like a toucan among crows, a haze of green fog hovering above a layer of crystal clear liquid, like a G&T Pousse Café. Crowning the mix was a headdress of julienned lime zest. The judges’ suspicions about the drink’s unorthodox appearance melted when they tasted it. It was crisp, bright and deeply flavorful. “If the goal of a Gin and Tonic is to be refreshing, that does it,” proclaimed Baiocchi.
This was the very singular and sui generis Gin and Tonic of Toby Cecchini, owner of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn. He credits the recipe to his father, a native of Italy and an Anglophile, who made pitchers of G&Ts in the summer. The lime skins are julienned into thin strips and then placed in a shaking tin or glass with three ounces of Tanqueray gin, where they are muddled for 20 or 30 seconds, until “the aromatic oil has clearly emerged and the whole has taken on a translucent green from the juice.”
Meanwhile, eight ounces of Schweppes tonic poured into a large glass filled with three large, cracked ice cubes. The gin-lime mixture is then carefully poured on top, so that it appears to float above the tonic. The lime strips are then pulled from the bottom via tongs to act as a garnish. “Present as such,” wrote Cecchini, “making sure to tell the guest to mix the whole together before sipping.”
Coming in second was the closest the tasting came to a Spanish-style G&T: Sarah Morrissey’s mix of Xoriguer Gin de Mahon from Spain, Fever-Tree tonic, lots of ice and a garnish of lime, lemon, mint and grapefruit. (Morrissey specified juniper berries as well, but Bushwick’s bodegas were flat out of juniper berries.) The tasters had no use for the mint, but found the rest to contribute to a complex aroma that buttressed the already intensely flavored gin.
James Bolt of The Gin Joint in Charleston took third place with his combination of two ounces of Nikka Coffey Gin and twice as much Boylan Heritage tonic water, topped off with a kaffir lime leaf garnish. The surprising citrus flavors present in the Japanese gin helped the drink stand out for the judges. It was yet another outlier in its way.
So while “simple” was the credo the judges adhered to at the start of the process, “special” was what inevitably prevailed. Special because of the preparation, because of the garnish, because of the gin choice. Something set all three victors apart from the crowd. “To get a really good one,” concluded Palahach, “you have to go through a lot of hoops, which kind of explains this whole tasting.”