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For years, my husband’s go-to cocktail has been a gin and tonic. He picked it up from his Dad, a sailor. Even with that justification, I long pooh-poohed such a simplistic choice. It wasn’t until we travelled to San Sebastián, Spain, a few years back that I began to appreciate his love of the two-part cocktail.
After a wandering tour of pintxos bars and private cooking clubs (txokos) a family friend took us to Dickens Cockteleria for a nightcap. Dickens is one of the most storied places on the planet for a gin-tonic, as they are called throughout Spain. Just footsteps from the Bay of Biscay, a bartender took a red wine glass filled with ice, spritzed it with lemon zest by twisting a piece of the fruit’s peel with a pair of bar tongs, added gin, and topped the glass with tonic from a single serving bottle instead of the gun. Suddenly the drink seemed a heck of a lot more sophisticated.
In the years since, the beverage has become the darling of the stateside food cognoscenti and, as summer inches closer, I’ve found myself thinking about the cocktail I’ve long dismissed.
Although tenured bartender Sean Kenyon swears that “proper London gins” such as Beefeater or Tanqueray compliment the tang and sweetness of tonic, I’ve been wondering if the cocktail isn’t a simple, straightforward way to taste all the artisanal, small-batch gins on the market. “Newer style floral gin don’t hold up to a decent tonic,” he warns, but I’m not against the good excuse to discover that for myself.
Even if one doesn’t tinker with the gin, tonic itself is worth taste-testing these days. For years our only choice was mass-produced tonics, often sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. As a result, many bartenders—respected Front Range names like Anika Zappe, Rob Corbari, Randy Layman, James Lee, and Adam Hodak included—turned to house-made tonic syrups that are mixed to order. In fact, when you order a gin and tonic at their Central Bistro and Bar, the Populist, Ace Eat Serve, the Bitter Bar, and Green Russell, respectively, you’ll be poured house tonic. But companies like Fever Tree, White Rock, and Q Tonic have recently begun bottling recipes for the quinine-based bubbly that are so appealing that the beverage directors behind Ophelia’s, Ste. Ellie, Williams & Graham, Frasca Food and Wine, and Steuben’s have ditched house-made tonic for these brands. “I’ve done house tonics in the past but there are so many great choices out there commercially now, I just don’t see the point,” Chad Michael George, president of the Colorado Bartenders Guild told me.
As spring temperatures turn to summer ones I’ll soon be hollering “Can I fix you a cocktail?” out the door to my favorite gardener. I’ve finally caught the gin and tonic fever and, for the first time in our marriage, I’m hoping he sticks with his standby.