It is odd to think that the Gin & Tonic originated as medicine — or rather the “tonic” part did, dosed as it was with a measure of quinine, a bitter alkali that British nationals from the East India Trading Company used to ward off malaria. Recipients sweetened the medicine with sugar, then added gin to make the experience more bearable; the obligatory wedge of citrus presumably came later, perhaps to combat scurvy. What they didn't realize was how magnificently these three elements would interlock into one of the most naturally invigorating booster shots ever conceived, and one of the drinks with which we herald summer.
Gin, tonic and citrus are each somewhat prickly flavors on their own, the gin marked by sharp botanicals, the tonic by the mineral cut of quinine, the citrus all acid and line. Making a proper drink is a bit like bringing three pointed sticks together to make a point: Too much gin and the drink's too herbal; too much tonic and the texture stiffens, becoming tacky and astringent. (Too much citrus and it's another drink entirely.)
Many, many gins will do the trick — whether it's the clean lines of Bombay, Beefeater and Tanqueray, or the more aromatically demonstrative offerings from Blue, Blade or St. George (especially the “Terroir” bottling, for me). Lime has a sharper line than lemon, of course, and marries with quinine's minerality especially well.
The dealbreaker, of course, is the tonic: Many are so sweet they threaten to throw off the balance you're looking for. Two well-crafted tonics are worth seeking out, Q and Fever Tree — and to my palate they yield wildly different results. Q is well structured but relatively neutral — it yields a G&T that seems classic, easy, unforced and delicious. Fever Tree is almost demonstrative in its flavor set — with tastes normally reserved for Cinzano Vermouth and amari — but damn if it doesn't make a satisfying drink. In meticulous trials, my most successful ratio was about one part gin to one and a half parts tonic, with half a key lime. The first sip was like an inaugural moment to my summer.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Have a spirits question for a future column? Ask him. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.