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.

A gin and tonic.
A gin and tonic.

Courtesy of Danielle Scott/Flickr

The restaurant’s main dining room was, like my lunch partner’s expense account, majestically commodious, and the light softly filling its temperate air seemed as buttery as the kitchen’s Dover sole. Earlier this month in midtown Manhattan, my film agent and I conducted a most productive business lunch at Oceana, where the severely assuaging atmosphere enhanced a discussion of the second draft of my first screenplay, a feature-film tribute to the gin and tonic. We glowed with the knowledge that we were full of fortune. And liquor.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

The restaurant had 38 bottles of juniper juice on the wall and four house-made tonic waters on offer—sweet, citrus, bitter, and spicy—and the patrons were in the right place at the right time: There has been a spontaneous mass decision to take the basic G&T to new heights of style and depths of flavor . The phenomenon is really quite striking: From the banks of the Ohio River to the beer halls of the Texas plains, bars are making tonic water from scratch and taking care to fuse its particular flavors with those of a very well-chosen gin. Washingtonians enduring the swamp conditions to which they have been consigned can now counter the sweat on the brows with the condensation on a glass of G&T poured from a tap. In Baghdad by the Bay, G&Ts flow like the Tigris and Euphrates, a glance at SF Weekly’s notes on Brasserie S&P would seem to indicate: “Patrons can customize the perfect gin & tonic for themselves by selecting one of 31 different gins (most accompanied by tasting notes), choice of tonic water, including two house made varieties, and finally one of the elegant garnishes.” New York of course is delirious, and as of this week's dining section, our friends at the Times are on it. Point is, this summer, from the clambakes of Martha’s Vineyard to the cookouts of La Jolla, partygoers will come to refresh their appreciation of its classic crispness.

And while you guys are out having fun, I hope to be posted up at Oceana and working through its 132 gin and tonics. Getting G&T: The Movie into development and preproduction will require the careful plying of dozens of investors, because our goal is to produce the film independently, and my ambitions for the project are titanically deranged. After dessert, the agent and I glided from the dining room to the white-marble bar to review the script page by page, and she supposed that following through on all of my ideas would yield a seven-hour film costing $600 million to produce, not including marketing costs, or tips. “But we must do justice to the summer blockbuster of mixed drinks!” I cried, and we gently lay our foreheads on the bartop to cool the fever of the ongoing brainstorm.

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At the center of the film is an account of the drink’s origins in the 1800s, among the officers of the British East India Company, who caught buzzes in the course of fighting mosquito-borne illness. “The British dominance of its empire in India was due in part to juniper in its form as gin,” a Cambridge botanist writes. “Gin and tonic was a staple, containing quinine from the South American shrub Cinchona, which warded off malaria. It therefore took administrators ten years to die instead of five.”

My postcolonial take on the birth of the drink builds to a Bollywood-style musical number scored to Oasis’ “Supersonic” as arranged for sitar. Then, with the segue of the Jicks’ “Pink India,” that set piece morphs kaleidoscopically into another, an homage to the G&T’s special place in American culture. The second number is in the style of a co-ed Busby Berkeley fantasia, but with the boys costumed in Nantucket Reds and the girls in high-heeled boat shoes and all of them dancing the shag to an original song by Vampire Weekend (feat. the Yale Whippenpoofs). The G&T, like the madras and seersucker fabrics upon which it is so often spilled, is a subcontinental invention appropriated for the warm-weather pleasure of Americans WASPs of all races and creeds. As the authors of the definitive guide to preppy drinking put it, “When mixed well, and sipped on the back of a Sag Harbor beach house at 7:32 pm on a Friday, there’s really nothing better.”

These conjoined musical sequences have been the center of the film since I began the imagining of it. The mood I’m aiming for should reflect the composition of a well-made G&T, with one measure of intoxicating sharpness balancing every two measures of sparkling pop. In an attempt to squeeze into the script a lime-like dramatic tartness, I wrote a small part for James Spader as a boarding-school chemistry teacher who collaborates with a former student to make bathtub gin. And then I started compulsively adding ideas and context and now, well, the beginning of the thing is all INT. BEDROOM, VICEREGAL PALACE (PERU)—NIGHT:

In her bedchamber, Ana de Osario—also known as the Countess of Cinchon and more to the point the wife of the Viceroy of Peru, which is to say the big enchilada in all of Spanish South America in the 1630s—tosses sweat-glazed in tangled sheets. Her writhing is nearly erotic [I like Penélope Cruz for the part] until an Exorcist-quality spasm of Python-quantity projectile vomiting breaks the reverie. Malarial fever has seized the vicereine.

In the gloom of the room, servants tread lightly amid heavy furniture, and the viceroy paces fretfully. From the ill woman’s POV these motions darkly melt into vague hallucinations evocative of the oblong blobs of slide views of Plasmodium.

A Jesuit priest enters. Our first thought is that he will deliver last rites—but then he mutters some untranslated sentences to the husband. These are greeted with the brightened eyes of cautious optimism—and then the lady’s hallucinations deepen, resolving into a vision of natives in the Andean night, stripping a bush of its bark. An Incan healer treats the bark, and the bark heals the countess, who in 1639 returns to Europe bearing the Countess’s Powder, the febrifuge known to you and me as quinine …

And in that fashion we bounce through world history, just for a quarter of a millennium or so, skipping across three or four colonial empires. We chase La Condamine on his quinquina quest to Quito. We linger amazed at the inhumanity of the Dutch, who cultivated the fever tree on Java—and who cultivated a virtual monopoly from Amsterdam, fixing prices without remorse while malaria patients died. Holland bought its seeds from an English alpaca farmer named Charles Ledger, whose expeditions through the Andes involved the smuggler’s blues and the slow torture and sudden death of his local guide, Manuel Incra Mamani.

I confessed to the agent that I was fixated on the story of Ledger and Mamani, with its ambiguous dynamics of loyalty and exploitation, and I confessed, further, that I was having trouble thinking of actors ideally cast in the parts. She said, “Benedict Cumberbatch and Gael García Bernal. Boom.”

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.”

(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.

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