"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.)
Of course, you don't have to make your own tonic water. But stick with an artisan brand such as Fever Tree or Q Tonic (both widely available) or Fentimans (if you can find it). If you're faced with the basic supermarket brands, I'd suggest Schweppes over Canada Dry, which I find too sweet.
Beyond the tonic-gin matchmaking, what I've learned from the Spanish, and from Bernbach, is to seriously reconsider the traditional G&T garnish.
"There's really no reason to stick to lime," Bernbach says. "Figure out what the main botanicals in your gin are, and experiment. I would even suggest using more than one garnish."
Tanqueray, for instance, has a citrus quality, which is simpatico with a slice of grapefruit or a sprig of thyme. Beefeater, on the other hand, has pronounced licorice notes, so Bernbach suggests garnishing with star anise in addition to citrus. Old Raj shines with a sprinkle of saffron. Plymouth wants an orange and perhaps a sprig of mint. "A stick of cinnamon also goes well with the quinine in tonic," Bernbach says.
Kara Newman, author of "Spice & Ice" (and an aficionada of spices in cocktails), recently gave a thumbs up on her blog to the Spanish-style gin and tonics that eschew the lime for star anise, cilantro and even nutmeg. She writes, "Those who groove on the botanicals in gin will especially love the extra kick and aromatics that fresh spices add to the drink (note - skip the straw so your nose is all but immersed in the pretty fragrances)."
I am now so excited to experiment with gin and tonics that I am ignoring the fact it's the middle of winter, months from traditional G&T season. If there's a perfect time for a gin and tonic, that time is definitely the present.
Wilson is the author of "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits" (Ten Speed Press, 2010). He can be reached at email@example.com.