A simple summer drink with a history

Don't be fooled: the gin and tonic may be many things, but easy it is not.

“It’s a very simple drink, as is the martini,” says London mixologist Jamie Walker, the global brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire gin. “For that reason, it’s very easy to get wrong.”

Because there’s so little that goes into this iconic drink — gin, tonic water, ice and perhaps a bit of lime — what really matters are good ingredients.

For this particular cocktail, we have the British to thank, namely, Brits in 19th-century India, who were searching for ways to get their loyal subjects to ingest quinine, which is used to treat malaria and has at times been thought to repel mosquitos, which carry the disease. The amount of quinine in modern tonic water is a fraction of what’s needed for treatment (you’d need about 7 quarts of tonic water to even come close), but the drink’s popularity was established.

Yet even gin and tonic lovers face an uphill battle to find a good one.  Even when done right, it’s not an easy drink to love — tonic’s slightly bitter quinine taste is a turnoff to sweet-drink lovers.

Atop the list of potential pitfalls is the tonic, a misunderstood beverage if ever there was one, and a potentially devastating blow to a perfect G&T.

“The sad part is, it’s screwed up at 90 percent of the bars in America, and you know the reason?” asks Dale DeGroff, one of the nation’s leading mixology consultants and author of “The Craft of the Cocktail.” “Ninety percent of bars in America use soda out of a gun that in no way, shape or form resembles quinine water.”

The better bet is tonic from a bottle — preferably one of those single-serving jobs, which preserves freshness. Request it that way if you’re ordering in a bar; the best bars will at least stock club soda and tonic in bottles. Brands are a matter of preference, though DeGroff is partial to Schweppes. (Me too, and I spent the better part of my childhood becoming a tonic water connoisseur — without gin.)

Gin vs. gin

The secret to the gin is the choice of botanicals. All gins have juniper as a flavor base in their distillation, which is what provides those foresty scents. But most use additional flavorings of citrus and spices. Bombay Sapphire has made its reputation on its use of 10 botanicals, from lemon peel to cubeb berries, a Javanese pepper. The mix makes Sapphire’s taste profile spicier than most — though Walker insists it’s the balance of flavors, not the number of them, that is key to its appeal.

DeGroff prefers a more straightforward gin — any London dry such as Beefeater or regular Bombay — to the more aromatic options, which also include Dutch and Plymouth gins, and new options like Tanqueray Ten. John Gertsen, principal bartender at Boston’s No. 9 Park, opts for “something snappy” like the original Tanqueray.

The key to the drink’s classic taste, DeGroff says, is to balance the bitterness of the tonic against the juniper and other flavors in the gin. “But always the juniper on top,” he adds.

As for the rest, choose a tall, slim, chilled highball glass, the freshest limes possible and — no matter how hot the day — solid cubes of the coldest ice you can get. Ratios for tonic to gin vary widely, from equal parts to 2:1. It’s really a matter of taste.

Variations abound, and none are beyond the pale: a sprig of mint, or a dash of Angostura bitters only add additional layers of flavor.  But the humble gin and tonic is a hot-weather drink, best not to be overthought.

“Keep it simple,” Gertsen says. “A gentle stir and a big ol' hunk of lime and head for the hammock.”

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