Former DI editor Patience Gould looks for the best tonic for her tipple

on 30 July, 2012

It’s been something of a month in gin terms. It kicked off with the International Spirits Challenge gin tasting. Chaired by Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne this was indeed something of a ‘challenge’, with no fewer than 58 gins to slurp, taste and rate...

Aside from the record entry this undertaking also highlighted the immense diversity that now abounds in the gin firmament. And I don’t just mean in terms of bad to good – though I have to say the first gin of the day was extremely unpleasant, but no names, no pack-drill and, since the tasting was blind, I only know it as number one, which it most definitely was not!

No. the diversity comes from the ever more interesting combination of botanicals used in the ‘brews’, which lead to an expanding spectrum of tastes. This in turn means it is now possible to build up a repertoire of gins for different drinking occasions, be it a gin for the Negroni, or the Martini, or the Gimlet, or even the classic, namely the Gin & Tonic.

Without a doubt the G&T reigns supreme and is still today the most perfect and most popular combination. Put simply, when you want a G&T no other drink will suffice. So my second gin ‘do’ this month was a gin and tonic tasting. It is an interesting fact that, while consumers are increasingly fascinated with gin, very little thought goes into which tonic – and the quality of tonics varies most considerably. I’m talking regular Indian Tonic Water here – not slimline.

So the website GinTime is conducting the Ultimate Gin & Tonic tasting – an exercise to find the best combination rather than the best gin or the best tonic. A series of tasting sessions over the rest of the year will concentrate on three tonics, Fever Tree, Schweppes and the redoubtable Waitrose own-label. Three gins were up for the first trial, Plymouth, Tanqueray and No.3.

As I made my way down to London’s Portobello Rd and the Ginstitute where the tasting was being presided over by owner Jake Burger, my mouth was watering at the prospect. The tastings were conducted blind and the combination was on a fifty/ fifty basis with the G&Ts served over ice, but with no fruit. It was a fascinating experience – and any doubts I may have had about the difference a tonic can make were well and truly dispelled.

It turned out that the best combination on the day was Plymouth Gin with Fever Tree Tonic, followed by Plymouth with Waitrose and Tanqueray with Waitrose, which actually says a lot about the quality of Waitrose Tonic and not so much about Schweppes – a tonic which for years has prevailed in the G&T stakes. But it’s early days yet and many more gins have to be trialed with these three tonics – it’s a hard life isn’t it?

But what actually makes for a good quality tonic? Well for starters the complete absence of saccharine and other artificial flavourings and both Fever-Tree and Waitrose tonics can hold their heads up high in this regard. Fever-Tree is perhaps the more natural of the two, with its ingredients listed as: spring water, cane sugar, natural flavours and natural quinine.

Quinine itself can be artificially produced and it is the ingredient which gives the mixer its ‘tonic’ qualities as, back in the days of the Raj Gin & Tonic was consumed as an antidote to malaria. It was in the 19th century when British officers took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to the quinine to make the drink more palatable.

Obviously no longer used as an anti- malarial, the tonic water today contains much less quinine, is usually sweetened and therefore much less bitter. Interestingly it is thought that it’s the bitter qualities associated with quinine which combine so well with the green ‘notes’ associated with juniper – which is always present in the botanical mix otherwise it ain’t a gin.

It remains a salient fact that a G&T made with a good gin and a good tonic is a sublime drink, but a poor quality tonic will let the side down, no matter how good the gin.


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