“I don’t know what reception I’m at, but for God’s sake give me a gin and tonic.”
Perhaps Dennis Thatcher should have been more specific:
“for God’s sake give me a one-part export-strength Bombay Saphire gin with a two-parts Fever Tree tonic, and a couple each of lime slices and ice cubes.”
Why those proportions, and those ingredients particularly?
And how did the gin and tonic develop into the globally popular, to-be-relied-upon-in-all-circumstances, cocktail to call upon?
For starters, it’s not particularly British…
Dennis Thatcher wasn’t the first to consider the gin and tonic as a cure-all. All the components of this classic drink (the gin, the tonic, and the lime) were incorporated either because of their health benefits or because of their administration benefits (ie a spoonful of alcohol helps the medicine go down). Indeed, some argue (Winston Churchill for example) that the British Empire owes its existence to the gin and tonic. But as you would expect of course, none of the ingredients originates from Britain.
1. the gin
Although Italian monks had been mixing juniper berries in with white spirit for centuries, gin really originates from Holland (a province of The Netherlands). It was invented in the sixteenth century by a physician/apothecary named Franciscus Silvius/Silvius de Bouve. He was the first of many to believe strongly in the administration-facilitating benefits of alcohol. His theory was that juniper berries could help improve circulation, and Silvius’ concoction came to be named after the Flemish word for the plant jenever. Samuel Pepys obviously got to hear of it since he wrote in his diary in in 1660 of curing a case of “colic” with a dose of “strong water made with juniper”.
British soldiers went to fight in Holland in the 1580s and they also saw benefits although more in terms of the alcohol itself – this is where the origin of the term ‘Dutch courage’ came from.
Now the various gin manufacturers keep the mix of botanticals a secret (like Campari). Those generally used (in addition to the mandatory juniper berries) include coriander seed, angelica and orris root, citrus peel, cardamom pods, calamus, cubeb berries, grains of paradise and casia bark. It’s these aromatics which distinguish gin from vodka (the spirit base of gin is usually wheat or rye). Plymouth gin is slightly less dry than London gin (hence London Dry Gin). If you decide to use London gin go for Tanqueray – it’s stronger than Gordon’s – ..or others…see ‘the perfect gin and tonic’ below – go for export strength.
2. the tonic
The latin american chinchona tree has a bark which the Incas used as a muscle relaxant to stop shivering in the cold temperatures of the high mountains but Father Agostino Salumbrino, a Jesuit priest living in Lima in the late sixteenth century was curious about this effect and sent some back to Italy where it was found to be an effective cure for malaria also having a preventative effect (hence the chichona tree became known as ‘fever tree’). British officers fighting in India had a daily ration of ‘quinine tonic’ which was mouth-twistingly bitter, so it wasn’t long before they hit on the idea of washing it down with a measure (or so) of gin. As increasing numbers of British went to live in India the daily quinine ration for all came to be known as ‘Indian tonic water’. In 1897 a British surgeon commented that quinine was simply priceless to England, “it is not too much to say that if portions of [Britain’s] tropical empire are upheld by the bayonet, the arm that wields the weapon would be nerveless but for chinchona bark and it’s active principals”. By the 1840s the British population in India was consuming 700 tons of chichona bark annually. Then, in 1858, a year after the Indian mutiny and the same year in which the British government took over direct control of India from the East India Company, an enterprising individual called Erasmus Bond patented Indian tonic water. Schweppes introduced its own tonic water in 1870, specially developed for the colonial British.
The tonic water that you buy today contains hardly any quinine (only about 20mg per 8 oz tonic water). Premium brands (such as Fever Tree) use natural quinine (rather than synthetic). Now ironically Fever Tree is selling its premium tonic water back to the market where it was invented. At the end of next month it’s launching its range into India as part of the government’s GREAT Britain campaign.
3. the lime… or lemon
In the mid -eighteenth century a naval surgeon, James Lind, discovered that sailors could prevent the development of scurvy on long sea trips by eating citrus fruits (it was some time before it was the vitamin C which was identified as being the key component). As usual the authorities were a bit slow on the uptake and it was some decades before it became standard practice to give sailors limes as part of their diet (hence the British often became known as ‘limeys’). Some say it’s better to use lemon, as there is usually some lemon used in the botanicals in gin, but precisely because of that, others say the lime provides an interesting discordant note.
The perfect gin and tonic
Arriving home hot and tired one evening a friend once offered a gin and tonic and I accepted gratefully. What came was the perfect definition of how NOT to make a gin and tonic. The mix of flat tonic and cheap gin was served lukewarm in a tooth mug (dubiously rinsed) without ice or lime.
So: good gin (and that means a good make – Tanqueray as mentioned above, or Boodles, Sipsmith, Bombay Saphire… – as well as export strength – 47.3% – not the watered down 37% now prevalent in the UK), tonic made with natural quinine, ice, lime (more powerful, interesting, taste than lemon), beautiful glass….
Proportions? I like the classic one part gin, to two parts tonic, and go easy on the ice.
Not everyone agrees – my beloved once made a gin and tonic for a friend with a widely acknowledged nightly proclivity for the drink. “Er… I think you’ll find she needs a bit more gin in it that THAT” commented her concerned husband – she is more of a 50/50 gal. But one of the good things about a gin and tonic is that it’s refreshing – too much gin and it loses this advantage.
Nina Simone, Gin House Blues…. …. Billy Joel, Piano Man (“there’s an old man sitting next to me, making love to his gin and tonic…”) …. Françoise Hardy, Gin Tonic … Coralie Clément’s Le Jazz et le gin….. or try Maissiat’s Gin Tonic – both below at the bottom of this post.
If you love gin and tonic so much that you’d like to smell of one, look no further than Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling. It’s actually rather nice – clean and fresh.
More history about gin
Gin, Glorious Gin: How mother’s ruin became the spirit of London, Olivia Williams (published by Headline, August 28 2014)
This blog is dedicated to Jackie Fiducia, and to Andrew Cunynghame