Tasty Tonic

Occasionally, a cool, clean gin and tonic is one of life’s pleasures (at least for me)… especially on a hot Summer afternoon…or any afternoon… or evening for that matter. And just like other food/drink pairings – each component is critical to the overall quality of the experience. Think really good pizza sauce but crappy crust. Or, fresh crisp romaine but mediocre Ceaser dressing. Same applies to the tonic in a G&T.

Fentimans

I have to admit that I’ve been more focused on the former ingredient, the gin, despite the fact that’s is only 1/3 of a properly mixed cocktail. The other 2/3’s one would think, would be equally, if not more important to the ultimate taste. Up until about a month ago, I’ve been using either Canada Dry, Schweppes or – gasp, Safeway brand tonic – all of which have nearly as much sugar (in the form of high fructose corn syrup) as a can of Pepsi.

Considering that tonic water was first patented in England in the mid 19th century and gin’s birthplace is also England – one would think that getting one’s tonic from the country of origin would serve one’s interests in quality cocktails well. In fact, one would be correct in obtaining Fentiman’s Tonic Water.

My first sip of Fentiman’s was at the Little River Inn in Mendocino on the recommendation from the barkeep. It’s impossible to know exactly what nineteenth century tonic waters were like but with Fentiman’s we get some idea of why this drink took the Victorian world by storm. There’s a sharpness derived from the bitter woody aromas of quinine bark. The complex herbal notes of lemon grass counterbalance this. All the ingredients including the sugar are 100% natural so there’s none of that flat chemical taste associated with mass produced tonic water. Instead a natural sweetness shines through. Because Fentiman’s Tonic is carbonated for longer its fizziness makes it more mixable. And the bubbles last longer too.

Having the small bottle of the tonic next to your drink is very European – they don’t have soda/tonic water guns like US bars have.  The kicker about Fentiman’s is that it actually has a bit of alcohol itself from the brewing process – .5%, so it actually complements and blends well into the cocktail versus diluting it.

Tonic water was first patented in England in the mid 19th century. In the mid 20th century the company Schweppes, known for their ginger ale, introduced it to the United States. It has been popular in both countries since it was first mass-marketed. The popularity owes much to an urban legend regarding quinine.

Quinine became recognized, as early as the 17th century, as a relatively safe cure and preventative treatment for malaria. Quinine derives from the bark of the Cinchona, a tree grown in the Andes. It was brought back to Europe, where it was found to be particularly useful for treating malaria. The British occupation of India was helped by quinine, since it allowed the British officers to stay healthy.

The trouble with quinine is that it tastes horrible. British soldiers would take the medication in a diluted form. The preferred ingredient to dilute the quinine was a great deal of gin, some lemon or lime, and sugar. When tonic water was first produced, people concluded that a few gin and tonics would be good for the health and prevent malaria.

Although the threat of malaria has surely subsided here in the wilds of Marin County CA and perhaps in your neck of the  wood – I fully support the consumption of a few tasty G&T’s for purely…. umm… medicinal purposes.

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