High-End Tonic

Paul Blow

After years of inactivity, I finally dusted off my old Prince tennis racket and shuffled back out onto the local hard court the other day to hit with a friend. Never to be confused with Rafael Nadal or even Amélie Mauresmo, I had a serviceable backhand, but my forehand was all over the place. And, while I didn’t wear white, I still found myself with an irresistible urge for a gin and tonic when I got home. The association of gin with tennis comes from my parents, who in the warm summer evenings of Austin, Texas, would play at the local park and then return home to a G&T on the patio. Mine would be just a “T” with a squeeze of lime.

I wrote about “G” not long ago. But until recently, sad little attention has been paid to “T,” which is more vital to the cocktail than the gin.

Consider the fact that when I first moved to San Francisco, in the height of Indian summer, I made my forays around the bars, and gin and tonic was my drink. However, each time there seemed to be something wrong: Every one I got was dull, flat, and watery. I sent a couple back thinking they were made improperly, only to receive darkly quizzical looks from the bartenders, who would remake the drink … with the same result. Finally, I realized that the problem was the awful tonic water at almost every bar in San Francisco. I could not have cared less what kind of gin I was getting, but the lousy tonic made an undrinkable cocktail, and consequently I stopped ordering the drink for, well, ever.

Tonic water gets its name because it literally was a tonic for British occupiers stationed in India. Flavored with quinine, which is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, tonic water protected against malaria. Quinine is exquisitely bitter, though, so tonic water was sweetened and then mixed with gin and lime to make it more palatable. Today, tonic water should be somewhat, but not overly, bitter; it should be energetically effervescent; and it should not be unctuously sweet, as many brands are. Canada Dry or Schweppes from a bottle, which were my brands in Texas, made perfectly adequate G&Ts. But what I found on the gun at all the bars in San Francisco (probably supplied by one company) was disgusting.

Things started looking up a bit when I noticed bars beginning to stock little bottles of Schweppes tonic water: Smaller bottles promise freshness and carbonation. And lately even that’s been improved upon as a couple of boutique tonic waters have become available nationwide.

Fever-Tree is a brand from the UK that’s been around here for about a year or so but is only now really starting to penetrate American markets. It has the nice provenance of having been founded by two Brits, including the former chief executive of Plymouth gin, Charles Rolls. He uses quinine sourced from a specific kind of cinchona tree found in Rwanda, orange oil from Tanzania, coriander oil, lime oil, African marigold, and pure cane sugar (instead of corn syrup). Sampled solo, Fever-Tree smells citrusy and tastes bright and sweet at first before transitioning into a classic quinine bitter finish.

Another relatively new product, Q Tonic, boasts that it uses cinchona from Peru (where the famous source of quinine was reputedly discovered) and is gently sweetened with agave nectar from Mexico.

Both are very good, though Fever-Tree has a slight edge both in the number of continents from which it sources its many ingredients and, for me, in its taste. Overall, I also preferred its more citrusy highs to the earthier palate of Q Tonic. Each, though, is well balanced, pleasantly bitter, and a good match with gin. After tasting many permutations, I thought that Beefeater gin melded the best with Q, while Plymouth (unsurprisingly) blended seamlessly with Fever-Tree. Overall, I think I like Beefeater best with any tonic.

And while there’s plenty of discussion as to the proper ratio, I take two parts gin to three parts tonic with about a quarter of a lime in a highball glass with fresh ice. After a couple of those, the inconsistency of my forehand just doesn’t seem to sting as much.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.