In Arkansas, where in July and August you can have weeks running of days in the 90s and 100s–that’s when it’s 90% humidity (or feels like it) and 100 degrees or more–there is absolutely no tall cool libation that hits the spot like an icy cold gin and tonic. Okay, some would argue that an ice cold beer ranks up there, but when this Southern Magnolia wilts in the heat, it’s a G&T for li’l ole me. Diet, of course, the tonic, I mean, not the gin…lots of crystal clear ice…big squeeze of lime.
When we lived in Arkansas, we counted the arrival of summer as the first day it seemed warm enough to need a G&T to cool off, whatever the calendar said. Throughout the next few months of heat and humidity, especially in the dog days of August, we downed a prodigious number of them, made traditionally (at our house, anyway) with Bombay Sapphire gin and Canada Dry or Schwepp’s Diet Tonic. (Artificial sweetener avoiders take note: diet tonic has always been made with saccharine. For reasons for which I can offer no illumination, diet tonic somehow escaped the rush to aspartame that overtook most of the diet beverage industry and if there’s a brand of it out there made with Splenda, I’ve never seen it.)
When we left Arkansas and moved west to cooler, drier climes, we discovered that a fair amount of the joy in drinking a gin and tonic depends on being where it’s blisteringly hot and humid; in Santa Fe, Boulder, or Santa Barbara, we found that we rarely if ever felt moved to drink them anymore.
But this summer, it’s been relatively hot up where we live on Lake Tahoe (nothing like some parts of the country, but a bit hotter and more humid than usual) and something about the combination of sun and water has rekindled our taste buds for G&T. Perhaps the association of heat and humidity with gin and tonic runs deep in those of us who possess some degree of British ancestry, since the whole concept of the drink arose to make the quinine tonic, needed to stave off malaria in India and other steamy corners of the erstwhile Empire upon which the sun never set, palatable by adding gin to it.
And make it palatable it does…especially with a wedge of fresh lime squeezed in.
Our long-time favorite brand of gin for this purpose, because of its aromatic herbal nose, was Bombay Sapphire. Better than plain Bombay, better than Boodles, better than regular Tanqueray, better than any other gin…or so we thought. A recent article by Eric Felton in the Wall Street Journal (sorry, available online only to WSJ subscribers, but a free trial is ongoing right now) espoused the perfection of a gin and tonic made with Tanqueray 10. Writes Mr. Felton:
What about the gin? As I did with Martinis last year, I tasted a dozen examples, this time to see which made the best Gin and Tonic. I found that the gins that make the best Martinis — I preferred Hendricks and Plymouth — aren’t the same ones to use when mixing with quinine water. But in all cases, I like gin that is unapologetically gin. Some of the boutique gins to hit the market in the last few years have done their best to resemble the nothingness of vodka. Stick your beezer in a glass of South, a new gin from New Zealand, and you’d be hard-pressed to find the slightest hint of anything gin-like. By contrast, open a bottle of the wonderfully hide-bound British gin Boodles and juniper perfumes the room. South made for a lousy Gin and Tonic; Boodles made for a classic.
My favorite gin for mixing with tonic, however, turned out to be Tanqueray No. Ten. I didn’t much like Ten when I was stirring Martinis — the bright taste of citrus peel overpowered the drier flavors. But in a Gin and Tonic, Ten is a triumph: With nothing other than gin, tonic and ice in the glass, you’d think that you had already squeezed half a lime into the mix. But go ahead and squeeze plenty of fresh lime juice in anyway, if you would be so kind, and you’ve got a drink worthy of anyone from a president to a chimp.
We decided to do our own blind tasting of Tanqueray No. Ten against our fave, the Sapphire, and T10 won…by a nose. Even more importantly, it softens the bitter edge of the tonic water even better than the Sapphire. Who knew?
Tonic water, of course, is sweetened water (with sugar traditionally, probably with high fructose corn syrup nowadays in the ‘real’ tonic water and saccharine in the ‘diet’ version) flavored with a small amount (about 83 ppm) of quinine. Quinine, which comes from the bitter bark of the South American cinchona tree, has been used for hundreds of years in more potent medicinal doses to prevent and treat malaria, stop nocturnal leg cramps, and treat a host of other maladies, most recently apparantly even including some measured success with prion (read that Mad Cow) diseases. It can bring fever down, reduce inflammation, and combat some infections. Quite a repertoire.
In lesser doses, it makes a mighty fine addition to a long cool summer drink. And though it might not be malaria we fear in America in this day and age, I’m all about warding off leg cramps, fever, inflammation, any other mosquito born diseases and maybe it will help those, too.
And if not, at the very least, it’s refreshing and it tastes REAL good on a hot summer day.