Gin and homemade tonic, a perfect match

Vader Tonic has notes of baking spices; see recipe link to make a Vader gin and tonic.
Vader Tonic has notes of baking spices; see recipe link to make a Vader gin and tonic. (Deb Lindsey/the Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 12:18 PM

"What's the perfect preparation for a gin and tonic?" muses Adam Bernbach, bar manager at Estadio, repeating my question to him. "That's like asking, 'What's the perfect preparation for a bath?' "

It's true. There are certain things we humans do just by feel, and making a gin and tonic is one of them: Grab a glass and some ice. Pour in the preferred amount of gin and tonic water. Squeeze in a slice of lime. Drink.

Of course, it's always possible to complicate things. You can move up to a super-premium gin. You can replace the Schweppes or Canada Dry with a tastier, livelier tonic such as Fever Tree or Fentimans or Q Tonic. Or you can make your own tonic.

In the end, though, it's still just a G&T. Right?

Well, that's what I thought until I was in Spain a few weeks ago. The gin and tonic was invented by the British, and certainly it has gained wide popularity among Americans. But the Spanish have elevated the drink almost to an art form.

I happened to be in the Andalusian town of Jerez, visiting its famed sherry bodegas. By the end of the day, however, I was sherried out and looking for something else at the local watering holes. That's when I began to notice that every bar displayed at least a dozen or more different gins. And not just Tanqueray, Beefeater and Gordon's, but an array of styles from around the world: Hendrick's, Old Raj, G'Vine, Citadelle, Plymouth, Martin Miller's and Zuidam, to name a few. Equally impressive was the number of tonics; at least a half-dozen artisan tonic choices usually were available, served by the small bottle.

My epiphany happened at a bar called Kapote, which had a pages-long gin and tonic menu. The bartender suggested G'Vine Nouaison gin from France with Fentimans tonic from the United Kingdom. Instead of a long highball glass, she used a large red-wine glass. Instead of adding lime slices, she muddled red grapes. Then she spritzed big chunks of ice with an essence of ginger, added the gin and slowly poured my tonic down the grooves of the long bar spoon.

It was love at first sip.

But as I worked my way through the rest of the menu, a basic truth hit me: There is no perfect G&T.

Once I returned home, that realization led me straight to Bernbach. He is channeling the Spanish gin-and-tonic scene at Estadio; in fact, it has become one of his most popular drinks. Bernbach says there is a gin and tonic for every occasion. He prefers a ratio of 2 to 1 - 3 ounces of tonic to 1.5 ounces of gin - but even that is flexible according to taste.

"It's all contextual," he says. "There's so much you can do with gin. It can be the most complex of beverages, the most culinary of beverages."

To that culinary end, Bernbach makes all the tonics he uses, each created to highlight the flavors and botanicals in a particular gin. For rich, earthy Old Raj, he created Tonic No. 6, flavored with orange and aromatic thyme. For subtle and elegant Plymouth, he crafted a wild tonic called the Vader, with a base of red wine plus grapefruit and lime juices, spiked with star anise, cardamom and cinnamon. (Bernbach's inspiration is his own popular drink called the Darkside, with gin and Barolo Chinato.)

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