The Gin and Tonic Is the Summer Blockbuster of Mixed Drinks

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
May 23 2013 12:51 PM

The Gin and Tonic

The summer blockbuster of mixed drinks.

(Continued from Page 1)

And then she fretted aloud that this whole quinine thread was getting too foreign for a mainstream U.S. audience. So I suggested we add some early scenes in an American grain: On the Oregon Trail, as in the Civil War, we mixed quinine powder with native spirits. But Jefferson Davis’ attempts to promote a compound of quinine and whiskey were a lost cause. The flavors simply don’t fuse, even when the drink is shaken with the help of a hard-trotting horse.

By contrast, gin and tonic very literally have good chemistry. “You know the Somerset Maugham line about not shaking martinis?” I asked. “He said they should always be stirred ‘so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another’? A G&T is as delicious as it is because something like that is actually happening.” The G&T is greater than the sum of its parts because the parts are of a piece. The essential oils in juniper are structurally similar to the basic compound of quinine. Because they rhyme, they fuse and fit and “aggregate” and build a beautiful new flavor. The most important part of the drink’s name is its and. The agent very brightly proposed that we hire animators to put together a chemical-bonding cartoon featuring the dancerly union of the relevant molecular orbital diagrams, possibly hosted by a top-hatted ampersand.

“But also don’t forget the H2O,” I said, thinking about the necessity of a proper volume of ice, yes—but more so of the Seven Seas. The G&T is most properly understood as an exotic drink with a posh aquatic bent. (Note to self: Contact the copyright holders about licensing footage of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, with its knockout shots of an America’s Cup defended on Narragansett Bay and a superbad sun hat on Anita O’Day.) You can find ads for tonic water in American magazines dating from the late 1930s and early 1940s—promotions for “socially correct” Billy Baxter Quinine Soda and putatively patriotic White Rock Q-9—but bars charged through the nose for it and books of the era describe the G&T as a foreign phenomenon. In Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, it is "the drink of the tropics from the Sailors' Bar at Cartagena to the cool verandah of the Myrtle Bank Hotel at Kingston, Jamaica,” and Charles H. Baker Jr.’s Gentleman’s Companion explains it as an institution of the tropical British East accepted in America by hosts “who wanted to impress folk with having combed the Orient.”

Advertisement

(I won’t pretend to understand all the subtleties of the British class system, largely because that system does not strike me as subtle in the least, but a sense of booze-based social striving—of wanting to impress—gives the U.K. G&T a slightly different tone: A certain kind of suburban stockbroker lives in London’s “gin-and-tonic belt,” and the Pet Shop Boys do not approve of the “gin and Jag” psychodemographic.)

These associations—along with Canada Dry’s insistence that its Quinac Quinine Water was correct for “smart resorts” and “exclusive clubs”, and David Ogilvy’s appeal to Anglophilia with his “Schweppervescence” campaign—contributed to the G&T identity consolidated in America in the 1950s. It was on its way to earning P.J. O’Rourke’s esteem as “a vital piece of sail-boating equipment.” I don’t want to endorse anything on the order of so-called “gin-and-tonic sailing”—drinking liquor at 15 knots—so I’ll let John Cheever do it instead: “Took Mary out to Sand Island in the outboard. Drank gin-and-tonic, ate crabmeat sandwiches, made love in a cove above the sea.” The best evidence that George W. Bush is more a son of Kennebunkport than of Midland is his college nickname, and when Bill Clinton claimed the G&T as his favorite drink, you could feel the Arkansawyer in him wanting to impress the Northeastern elite. I haven’t yet nailed down how best to depict preppies politics on screen, but I am strongly tempted to contract Pixar to render a panel discussion moderated by a CGI William F. Buckley, who hailed from the just-a-touch-of-Campari school of G&T upgrading.

“So the gin and tonic is the Whit Stillman film of mixed drinks,” said the agent.

“Bingo,” I replied. “And the thing of it is, these days that film is Barcelona.”

Within the past decade, “Spain has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the gin and tonic.” Any gin joint classier than a dive has plunged into the trend, and some bars do nothing but, according to a travel essay describing José Andrés’ preparation of a Crayola-bright beverage garnished with “thin curls of lemon and lime peel, floating pebbles of pink peppercorns, a wedge of star anise, and a few fresh mint leaves.” The trend apparently springs from a recent late-night tradition of off-duty chefs striving to outdo one another’s fanciful creations. Even if you find the idea a bit precious, you’ll have to agree it’s less problematic than a far more established pastime of off-duty Spanish chefs, a late-night tradition known as “way too much coke.” Anyway, I have this notion for the same actress who plays the Countess of Cinchon—fingers crossed for Penélope—to bookend the film by reappearing in its final scenes as a modern Madrileña encountering a postmodern gin and tonic at El Bulli.

It was after last call at Oceana, and the conversation was still, like its theme, scintillating.

“What’s the takeaway?” the agent asked. The takeaway is this recipe, which intends to stoke the audience’s anticipation for the inevitable sequel to G&T, a tribute to tonic water’s citric cousin, bitter lemon. I started with the concept of splitting the difference between a G&T and a Tom Collins, and my barman, Brendan Susens-Jackson, ended up reinventing the apricot:

The East Harlem Shakedown
1 ounce Hayman’s Old Tom gin
1 ounce Demerera rum (recommended: El Dorado 12-Year)
¾ ounce lemon juice
Heavy ¼ ounce Maraschino liqueur
¼ ounce simple syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon

Orange twist for garnish

Shake the first six ingredients well with ice. Strain over ice into a highball glass. Top with the bitter lemon. Garnish and serve. Drink and helplessly pucker your lips into an embouchure proper for rocking a transverse flute.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.