Despite having as many ingredients as a martini, the G&T rarely registers as a cocktail to most people. Not unreasonably so, given the straightforwardly British approach to its naming: a vodka and orange is a screwdriver, a rum and coke is a Cuba Libra, a gin and tonic is a gin and tonic (or if you’re rakish enough and have a typographical bent, a gin & tonic).
The history of the G&T is wrought from good old-fashioned, British jingoism. In the process of subduing and subjugating the good people of the Indian subcontinent, a few of our lads were welcomed by some of the more fecund locals. Quinine was subsequently discovered to be a prophylactic against malaria, and thus tonic water (a mixture of carbonated water, sugar, and the very bitter quinine) was administered to troops serving on the subcontinent. Given the necessity of drinking the tonic, the natural next step was to add alcohol, which being British could only mean gin.
Quinine taken in malaria-combating quantities has some rather unpleasant side-effects, and has not been used as a routine antimalarial since the 1940s. Happily, the gin and tonic has not been so quickly supplanted in our affections, though the amount of quinine in modern tonic water is considerably less than it was in the 18th Century. Despite the current popularity and superfluity of gin, if you get a gin and tonic made for you in a bar it’s likely to be crap. To redress the balance I’m going to outline what’s important about what goes into a G&T, and what to look for. There’s really not a great deal to it—choose the right ingredients and treat them well—but it’s fun to investigate all the same.
Given that a gin and tonic is going to be at least half not gin, it would be unwise to spend too much on the part that is. If you’re spending much more than £25 on a bottle it’s probably going too far; that said a single G&T in a bar will probably set you back over £4, so in relative terms even an expensive homemade G&T will not be pricey. As ever, Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell is fantastic and easily the match of gins for which you’ll pay twice as much.
Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s are two iconoclastic gins which are extremely popular in the U.K. and will make a decent G&T, especially Hendrick’s. Tanqueray is always a good choice, though it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Tanq sold in the U.K. is ‘Export Strength’, 43.1% alcohol, not the ‘Export Strength’, 47.3% alcohol. Whichever you get is fine, just be wary of offers that look too good to be true; they are.
Besides the English staples, the Scots have turned their hands to gin making in recent years and, unsurprisingly, produced some fantastic gins of their own. The two principle efforts are The Botanist, newly re-released this year in a different bottle and with a different price label (£32), and the recently released Caoruun (cow-roon), a fantastic Speyside gin that you can get for around £25 and which makes a very crisp gin and tonic. (Hendrick’s is actually Scottish too, but for the purposes of this illustration South Ayrshire is basically the northern Lakes.)
There are many other gins worthy of inclusion in a G&T that I shan’t enumerate here, suffice to say that they’re all a matter of experimentation. My current favourite is Monkey 47, which at £35 for 500ml is well outside my ‘sensible G&T gin’ price bracket, but every so often it’s a total treat.
It is essential to point out that almost all low-calorie/light tonic water is flavoured with aspartame and so tastes horrible. There’re around 30 kCals in a portion of tonic water, decidedly less than in gin, so just stick with that and be done with it. Furthermore—and to give heart to those just disheartened—tonic water with too much sugar will be too sweet. Schweppes, the British standard, has 5.1g of sugar per 100ml, for comparison Waitrose’ own brand has 9.8g of sugar per 100ml and is far too sweet. Britvic lies closer to Schweppes at 6.2g/100ml, but just tastes ghastly in its own right.
While Schweppes is perfectly drinkable, it does not escape from the dreaded sweetener, with a slight amount of saccharin added to balance the quinine. My favourite tonic water is Fever-Tree’s Naturally Light Indian Tonic Water. The Naturally Light moniker is given thanks to very low sugar content (just 3.9g per 100ml), but also attests to a complete lack of artificial sweeteners.
The standard garnish for a G&T is lime, however the choice makes a real difference and should not be taken for granted. The aforementioned Caoruun is served with a slice of Red Delicious apple, Hendricks frequently arrives with cucumber, and I’ve taken to including pink grapefruit with a Monkey 47 gin and tonic.
Here it depends on the overriding smells and flavours of the botanicals—A. v. Wees’ Three Corner Gin is distilled only with juniper berries and lemon, so anything besides lemon will taste decidedly odd. That said, I like Hendricks with a slice of orange as it adds a citrusy sweetness to balance the melon flavour given by the cucumber. As always, frequent and regular experimentation is encouraged.
Fill a glass with a reasonable quantity of ice. Add garnish. Add gin. Add tonic.
I maintain that a double gin (50ml) with 75ml tonic is the default proportion, however weaker or stronger is a matter of taste. On a hot summer’s day I’m liable to add the better part of a lime, a mountain of ice, and plenty of gin and tonic. (A style I’d swear I made up but I have read Dr. No several times and it’s in there—so maybe I’m plagiarising.)
Gin and Tonic… in cans
It’s completely defensible to object to the the pre-packaging of ‘proper’ cocktails, but a G&T is so fundamental a requirement to the day-to-day running of any enterprise that at times it is necessary to compromise. Having made by no means a complete assessment, I recommend sticking with either M&S’s (really quite good, and rather strong) cans, or Gordon’s (any port in a storm). The M&S G&T saw me through many a miserable journey from Euston back to Milton Keynes in 2013, for which I am eternally grateful.