Given the tendency of many mixologists -- or "craft bartenders" as I've heard they now like to be called -- to include complicated and hard-to-find ingredients in their cocktail creations, I was intrigued when an invitation came down the pike to attend a talk/demo about the humble gin & tonic, sponsored by Tanqueray and featuring globe-trotting brand ambassador Angus Winchester. I mean, how much can you say about a drink with two ingredients? OK, there's the martini, but the G&T (or, in Tanqueray's case, the T&T) lacks the 'tini's mystique. To my mind, it would be like attending a lecture about, say, blue jeans or tomato sauce. I like it, but I never really felt the need to know much about it. Still, the drinks were free and the pow-wow was being held at the Raines Law Room, one of the hipper speakeasy-type drinkeries that are all the rage in NYC, so I made the scene.
Angus Winchester is a dapper, Oxford-educated, self-described "International Gentleman Bartender," who likes to "talk about drinks, drinkers, and anything associated with them, because that's sort of what I've dedicated my life to." He's also dedicated his life to accumulating as many frequent-flier miles as possible, traveling up to a quarter-million miles a year wherever the liquid muse and the next job take him.
I encountered Mr. Winchester at the end of a long day of talking -- and drinking -- Tanqueray & tonics. And yet he was not only upright but looking fresh as a daisy and ready to regale us with tales of gin, tonic and how the two wound up meeting. He took us all the way back to the earliest known mention of gin, in 1269, and interspersed it with a liberal dash of British history: "The English like doing two things: drinking and fighting. Now, we managed to combine the two when we were asked by the Protestant Dutch to go and fight against the nasty Catholic Spanish in the Thirty Years' War in the 1600s." And this after eight hours of imbibing, with another couple down the hatch in the half-hour since I'd met him. Sir, I salute you.
Gin is an acquired taste for many, but at least some people like it -- unlike tonic water, which, without a mixer, is pretty unpalatable stuff. Still, tonic had its uses for 19th century Englishmen, as a delivery system for quinine, which prevented malaria in far-flung corners of the British Empire. As Winchester puts it, "Now, they say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but a large hit of liquor does it just as well. So the English officers combined gin with their tonic, to create the gin and tonic."
Even if you're not a fan of the G&T, the way Winchester waxes rhapsodic about it can convert you. "I still have, in my mind, going to the Captain's Bar at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, and ordering a gin & tonic, aged 19," he reminisces. "Being given my ice, my glass, a lovely wedge of lime -- a big wedge of lime, not a thin slice, almost like a quarter lime at the top -- with tonic on a silver tray. And he was like, 'Would Sir like to pour his own tonic?' And I was like, 'No no, you can do it.' And watching these bubbles come up -- not just in the glass, but the spray over the top, and really getting that first real waft of the dilution." You're getting thirsty, right?
Eventually, of course, the "gin & tonic" talk became a "Tanqueray & tonic" talk. Tanqueray is a spirit that flies in the face of today's trendy gins that don't really taste like gin. These are gins in name only, which are in reality closer to flavored vodkas than the juniper-heavy concoction Tanqueray's been making since the 1830s. "To my mind," Winchester says, "that's ridiculous. Tanqueray does not want everyone drinking Tanqueray. They want gin drinkers drinking more Tanqueray, please, as a benchmark gin. To create a vodka drinker's gin is like creating a vegetarian steak."
He also mentioned a Mad Men episode in which Roger Sterling receives a case of Tanqueray and says, "This is the good stuff." According to the New York Times, the real reason Tanqueray was used, and not the more-popular-in-1962 Beefeater brand, was that the bottle hasn't changed. But point taken.
Truth be told, Tanqueray is not my gin of choice. I find it's got a little too much juniper for my taste -- it's almost medicinal if it's not prepared just right. I find tonic to be pretty vile, and since Manhattan is not a place where one's likely to come down with malaria, I rarely drink it. But Tanqueray and tonic offset each other's less palatable aspects, creating a glorious alchemy when placed in a glass together. The tonic's fizziness alleviates the Tanqueray's heaviness, while the juniper spine and secondary citrus notes of the gin soften the bitter, harsh flavor of the tonic. A lesser, softer gin might get lost amidst the quinine, but Tanqueray holds its own and then some.
Since we're living in a new golden age of mixology -- er, craft bartending -- 'tenders from all over the globe are trying to improve on the classic G&T. Tanqueray recently hosted an exhibition/competition of gin-and-tonic variants, with Winchester as one of the judges. "Bartenders really took it out there," he says. "I had a three-layered gelatin gin & tonic -- a melon layer, a grape layer, and an orange layer -- done as a shot. A bar in Atlanta added a dash of orange bitters and a quarter shot of artichoke liqueur. A lot of people pushed a dash of something to sweeten it up. A dash of rosemary sugar syrup, tarragon sugar syrup, of basil sugar syrup. A couple of mint leaves and a slice of orange, muddled."
But that sort of negates the thing I like most about the gin & tonic -- the fact that you can easily acquire all the ingredients you need for it. No need to find some cantaloupe liqueur that's only available at one store within 200 miles of your home. No need to infuse whole boysenberries into your booze for two months before you make a cocktail. Just take some gin, some tonic water, some ice and a lime wedge, pour and enjoy. Find a comfy hammock, and you've found the perfect way to ring out summer. Enjoy.