Most folks believe the spring equinox, which takes place on March 21, to be the start of spring. However, we know better. The real shift in season starts with the first build and stir of a gin and tonic, the classic, unofficial OFFICIAL cocktail of warm weather. As it happens, April 9 is International Gin and Tonic Day, so it’s just plain appropriate to take a closer look at the history behind this cocktail.
The cocktail has a storied history, beginning in the heyday of European colonization, during the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then, colonists set sail to tropical regions and the global south in droves, meeting malaria, among other diseases for the first time. Eventually, missionaries and doctors learned about the quina-quina, or the cinchona tree, the bark of which was used to treat malaria by indigenous peoples in South America. In 1820, quinine, the active ingredient in cinchona bark had been isolated. Within a few years after that, it was being distributed as a highly effective—if highly bitter—antimalarial medicine, to be stirred into water with a bit of sugar to make the mixture easier to swallow. It was an enterprising soldier in the army of the British East India Company who first thought to combine their daily ration of tonic water with gin and a bit of lime. The rest, as they say, was cocktail history.
History aside, the gin and tonic now ranks among the most popular cocktails of all time. To find out why, we asked an expert—Jason Hedges, former bar director for Gotham Bar & Grill and co-founder of Bar IQ, a consulting firm specializing in the bar and restaurant industries. Hedges has developed award-winning beverage programs for Michelin-rated restaurants across New York City, has judged wine and spirits competitions for The Ultimate Beverage Challenge and is senior beverage manager for Pure Grey, a restaurant and bar design concept agency. Hedges knows his hooch. Here’s what he had to say about what some call the granddaddy of gin cocktails.
"For me, the timing is perfect because it's right after the winter [in New York], and a lot of people [want] to get away from the more sturdy, boozier drinks and go toward more light and refreshing ones," Hedges said. “That's exactly what the gin & tonic is—a crisp, refreshing, easy to make, warm weather cocktail that really allows the botanicals of the gin to show. The tonic gives it the proper dilution and it’s got the fizziness…it’s just really, in my opinion, the perfect warm weather drink because it’s effervescent and refreshing.”
“Gin is my favorite spirit,” said Michele Thomas, general manager for Wine and Spirits and a trained sommelier. “This is hilarious considering the ‘gin-cidents’ I got myself into during college. But knowing that there are so many flavor profiles and styles of gin to explore, I find it fascinating. There are super botanical styles, citrus-forward styles, and even lush, soft styles, so there’s something for everyone. Gin and tonics are a great way to explore what you like.”
“[Gin and tonics are] also easy to make,” Hedges said. “You don’t have to fuss with bar tools and this and that, you just get a glass and ice and build the drink right in the glass, it's perfect.”
So, how does this expert take his gin and tonic? We asked him that, too.
“I usually add citrus to my gin and tonic,” Hedges said. “because I like citrus. There are types of gin, like Boodles for example, that don't use any citrus in their botanicals recipe, because their thinking is like, ‘okay, the drinker's going to be adding their own citrus,’ but I happen to like [it].”
“I love savory things, so a lean, crispy, herbaceous gin is for me,” Thomas said. “I’ve been obsessed with Ford's Gin because it’s smooth and nails the flavors I want every time. But my latest crush is Gin Mare, which has lovely notes of olive, rosemary, and thyme.” Ready to get started? Here are some recipes to try with some of our favorite gins:
Classic Gin & Tonic
A classic cocktail for any time of year.
Fill a serving glass with ice. Add the gin, and tonic water, and a squeeze of fresh lemon, if desired. Stir until the glass becomes frosted on the outside, garnish with lemon slice and serve. Tip: Before serving, try chilling glasses for about 30 minutes.
Anchors Aweigh Gin & Tonic
The classic takes to the high seas with this variation, which uses overproof or navy strength gin. The term “navy strength” evolved an 18th-century practice used by British sailors to ensure that sprits were not watered down at the time of purchase (often from pirates and other folk looking to make a quick buck at the king of England’s expense). To ensure that the booze was “hard enough,” it would be poured onto a bit of gunpowder. If the mixture would light, it was the real deal. If it did not, then the rum contained too much water and was considered to be “under proof.” A few decades and lots of science later, it was discovered that the overproof spirits are equivalent to 57.15% ABV, although Navy Strength gin is issued at 100 proof.
2 oz Navy Strength gin (Try Ford's Officers Reserve or Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin)
For a less potent sail, try Dry Dock American Dry Gin, made right here in Brooklyn!
4-5 oz tonic water
1-2 dashes Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters
Rosemary sprig, for garnish
Combine the gin, tonic water, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice in a mixing glass filled with ice.
Stir until the glass is frosted on the outside, then pour into a serving glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a slice of lime and sprig of rosemary, if desired. Anchors aweigh!
Ibiza Gin & Tonic
This is a variation on the Spanish Gin & Tonic, which has its roots in Basque country, and is known for utilizing multiple garnishes that work to accentuate the flavor notes of the gin.
3 oz Gin Mare Mediterranean Gin
4-5 oz tonic water
Dried juniper berries, fresh basil leaf, slice of lemon and thyme sprig, for garnish
Combine the gin, tonic water, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until the glass is frosted on the outside, then pour into a chilled wine glass or collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with juniper berries, fresh basil, thyme, and lemon slice. Salud!
Garden & Tonic
This variation is as soft and lushly botanical as it gets. Finished with fresh fruit, it's reminiscent of a sunny, summer day at the Botanic Garden.
Combine the gin and tonic in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until well combined, then pour into a chilled glass over fresh ice. Garnish with grapefruit slice, sliced strawberry, and a sprig of rosemary, if desired.