It seems so perfectly British, the gin and tonic. Straightforward, simple, with a dash of bitter. The cocktail equivalent of a roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and mashed turnip dinner. There is nothing that smacks of paella — Baroque, impulsive, raucous, variable — about a classic gin and tonic.
But place that proper highball on the silver coaster atop your mahogany end table. Put down your P.G. Wodehouse, rise from the daffodil-yellow settee, remove the needle from your Benjamin Britten album, and turn away from the above-the-hearth painting of a waistcoated relative. It's time, classic gin-and-tonic enthusiast, to shake off the dust and stride out into the dazzling light and heat of your new environment: Spain.
The British East India Company invented the gin and tonic in the early 18th century in India. Disease was a problem, and doctors believed quinine — a medicine derived from tropical cinchona bark that gives tonic water its unique flavor — was a remedy. But straight quinine with water was awfully bitter. So it got spiked with sugar, punched-up with lime (which prevented the disease scurvy) and of course gin was added, because, why not?
Well-done. Gin and tonic. Cheers.
The simple and fantastic cocktail thrived for centuries, punctuating an estimated 3.7 billion tennis matches over the years and decorating late-summer afternoons from Cornwall to Boston to Sydney with a jolly good glow.
But then the Spaniards got a hold of it. They added bespoke syrups, ingredients and garnishes that complemented the gin. Bartenders from Cadiz to Bilbao experimented wildly with the gin itself, too, which is essentially vodka infused with all manner of herbs, roots, spices and fruits but especially juniper berries. And now the Spanish-style gin and tonic, served in a large tulip-shaped glass rather than a highball, is washing over the United States.
In Boulder, it has found a home on a new Boulder rooftop with staggering views of the Flatirons: the Spanish tapas and steakhouse Corrida. Servers trundle around the patio and restaurant with entire carts — three of them(!) — dedicated to the craft of the gin and tonic. Garnishes (things like watermelon radish, fennel, artichoke leaf), gins, tonics and bartending tools, as well as the separate gin-and-tonic menu, spangle the cart. The carts hold coolers full of dense, heavy ice cubes the size of a baby's fist called "top hats" that bartenders arrange, three at a time, in the tulip-shaped glasses before they make tableside drinks. The top hats melt more slowly than the usual slurry of small cubes excavated from an ice-making machine with a scoop. The slow-melt keeps the drinks frigid without watering them down.
"A year ago I went to a gin-and-tonic bar in Rioja (Spain)," said Corrida owner Bryan Dayton, who also owns Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder as well as the Denver restaurants Acorn and Brider. "They had 80 gins and 70 tonics. I loved it, and decided to bring the gin-and-tonic revolution to Boulder."
Corrida's G&Ts are more like spritzes — refreshing low-alcohol drinks — rather than the G&T booze-bombs we grew up gulping (two of 'em equals three sheets to the wind). Corrida's are gentler on the head and liver.
"It's civil," said Dayton.
Dayton, an internationally recognized bartender, appreciates the sturdy foundation of the drink — gin, tonic and citrus. It's classic, he said, and will forever remain in the pantheon of perfect drinks. But the creative license borne out of this stout, lasting combination thrills him.
Gin is the animating force behind the G&T renaissance. Each gin is different, with at least one thing always in common: juniper berry. Without juniper berry, it's not gin. Otherwise, gin distillers are free to add whatever flavors they desire, and with the microdistillery movement so very effervescent around the world right now the volume of available gins dwarfs the number just a decade ago. Each gin, Dayton says, calls for its own complementary flavors: What sings for a traditional London Dry Gin, which normally has a particularly pronounced juniper profile, along with things like coriander and angelica, might not work for a nouveau gin like Vapor Distillery's Boulder Gin, which ratchets-back the juniper in favor of things like lavender, hibiscus, and sencha green tea.
Here — consider the Empress 1908 gin and tonic at Cafe Aion, another Boulder restaurant that explores Spanish G&Ts. The patio-flanked Spanish restaurant launched a G&T program in the spring, and the Empress variation uses British Columbia-distilled gin that incorporates butterfly pea blossoms in the distillation. The blossoms turn the spirit light purple, which makes for one atmospheric G&T. Bar manager James Cummings also steeps gin in seasonal botanicals — the current infusion includes strawberry and rhubarb — and uses that to craft Aion's G&Ts.
"The infusions bridge the gap with gin," said Cummings. "People think they don't like gin because they had it once a long time ago and it was too juniper-forward. But the new gins, and the new gin cocktails, are about more than juniper."
Kicking-off a round of G&Ts with salud rather than cheers doesn't require a bar visit — making them at home is a gas. At least five Boulder distilleries — J&L Distilling Company, Deviant Spirits Distillery, Vapor Distillery and Anvil Distillery — produce gins. Here at Drinking With Doug, we always champion local as a good place to start. Give 'em a sip. As for tonic, the classics are OK in a pinch — Schweppes, Canada Dry — but I find these high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened tonics too saccharine. Fortunately, tonic brands like Fevertree, Q Tonic and Llanllyr Source are widely available in Boulder.
Cummings urged home bartenders to buy ice molds — this should just cost 15 bucks or less — to make those large cubes. And then commence the frenzy of wild experimentation. Walk the farmers' markets with more in mind than farm-to-table — think, farm-to-glass.
And while slurping a bowl of homemade gazpacho with a side of pan-sauteed Padron peppers, improve the feast with your own boozy take on what has become the national cocktail of Spain, by way of England and India.
Longtime journalist and Boulderite Doug Brown writes about adult beverages for the Camera. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @drinkingwithdoug.