Make the Best Gin & Tonic of Your Life: Advice from a Bartender in Oporto

The 10-Minute Happy Hour

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The deep love of a G&T continually proves strong, not just in the summer and most definitely not just stateside — the New York Times called 2013 the Year of the Gin and Tonic and Europeans love this little cocktail just as much as we do. Yet, on a recent trip to Portugal, I found their G&Ts to be quite different than what I was used to sipping. That’s when a local bartender dropped some knowledge on me.

After a week of tasting Vinho Verde (some stellar, some...well let’s just say less than…) my palate was burnt out.  I kid you not, my tongue had been tingling for days and the roof of my mouth felt like I had scorched it on hot cheesy pizza. My teeth were completely stripped of their veneer from the cumulative effect of sipping acidic wine, and I was thirsty for a cocktail. A common pour in those parts is a port and tonic, but I passed on this, telling the bartender I didn't like the sweetness of tonic. This is when he then insisted I taste his G&T.

It wasn’t syrupy sweet like I was expecting. In fact it was dry and had a nice bite.  The tonic typically poured at bars across the U.S. is so sweet, usually made with high fructose corn syrup, and often has that strange aftertaste that I assume is the quinine.  But the tonic in lots of other places around the world, like this bar in Portugal, is refreshing and invigorating with bright, citrusy aromas.

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So how do we achieve the ultimate G&T back in the States? You have a couple of options. First, you can make your own tonic syrup, which is do-able, but you’ll need to locate the key ingredient: quinine, a.k.a. powdered cinchona bark. You can usually find it at well-stocked herb shops or online. The recipe for making tonic syrup is fairly easy, but requires a little planning ahead. (See below.)

Second, you can pick up one of the artisanal tonics now available in the States. Tonics like Fever Tree and Q Tonic are more bitter than sweet and come packaged in cute little glass bottles at a premium price. If this isn’t available to you, I’ve got one last option: work with what you’ve got.

Widely available tonics like Schweppes or Vintage lean to the sweeter side.  A simple solution is to cut your tonic water with soda water: 1 part tonic to 2 parts soda water still gives you the flavor of tonic, but without all the sugar.  Seeing as how a G&T is usually more T than G, the most important thing, no matter which brand of tonic you are pouring is to taste your tonic first.  If it’s too sweet, too medicinal, or too bitter cut it with club soda — and don’t forget the lime.

As with every cocktail in the world, everyone has his or her own take, from favorite brand of gin to whether the lime should be a wedge or a twist of the peel.  Add a good-quality brand or style of tonic to the mix, and I’m convinced there is a G&T for everyone out there.

What’s your G&T take?

 Cinchona Bark from Lhasa Karnak Herb Company
Quinine Syrup Recipe from Lottie + Doof

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My Perfect G&T Recipe

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces gin
2 ounces tonic
4 ounces club soda
1 lime wedge or twist if you prefer
Ice

Fill a glass with ice. Add the gin, tonic and club soda. Stir and garnish with the lime wedge or twist. Enjoy.

(Images: Maureen Petrosky)

Per serving, based on 1 servings. (% daily value)
Calories
168
Carbs
5 g (1.7%)
Sugars
5 g
Sodium
31.8 mg (1.3%)