With the arrival of warmer weather, my father switches over to gin and tonics. A retired diplomat, Dad retains many of the habits of his working life: Evenings, he reads the paper, nursing for hours the drink sweating onto the side table.
My parents keep their liquors under the kitchen sink with the household cleaners, probably because they are indistinguishable. My father’s highball never became mine: I came up thinking of G&Ts as bottom-shelf gin, off-brand tonic and a wedge from a lime partly mummified in the refrigerator.
For Dad, cheap liquor is a matter of principle. The child of Depression-era parents, he avoided the finer things to save for our house, for our college, for security. In the early days of Starbucks, I would show up with a mochalattefluffiato, and Dad, knowing its cost compared with the Folger’s crystals he survived on, would eyeball it suspiciously. “Nice to have a rich daughter,” he’d sniff, in tones suggesting that the beverage would one day prove the root of our family’s ruin and, at the very least, was something I should mention at confession.
As longtime beneficiaries of Dad’s frugality, our family encourages him to indulge now that he’s retired. A few years back, my husband and I gave him a bottle of Citadelle gin: elegant, French, triple the price of his usual brand. It sat untouched in a cabinet for months. The turpentine beneath the sink continued to disappear.
“I’m a simple man,” my father said when I inquired. “I’m not worthy of that gin.”
It reminded me of when I first got hold of saffron, before I really knew how to cook. I knew it was expensive. I knew I shouldn’t just throw it on some noodles, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just stored it indefinitely. My parents aren’t martini people, and they knew they shouldn’t be topping Citadelle with Safeway tonic and a lime harvested during the Bush administration.
This Father’s Day, I decided to find the perfect tonic to pair with the Citadelle, the perfect flotilla of herbs and citrus to drift upon its surface. This Father’s Day, I would pimp my dad’s G&T.
When you have thousands of dollars with which to explore gin and tonic, travel to Spain, where they’ve turned the drink into an art form. I had about $20, so I went to Adam Bernbach, the bar manager at Estadio, who has chiseled down the Spanish inspiration to a manageable roster.
As bartenders revived various classic cocktails over the past several years, highballs “took longer than the Manhattan to kind of get that re-look,” Bernbach says, “maybe because they were seen as the kind of quick drink you could get at any old bar. Like vodka-sodas, the classic cop-out drink. Unfortunately, I think gin and tonics got wrapped into that reputation.”
The rickey may be D.C.’s official cocktail, but Washingtonians have reason to embrace the G&T, a quaff born of the British military’s efforts to keep troops serving in India from dropping dead of malaria. The bitter medicine quinine — like many of life’s little insults — became more tolerable when mixed with gin. It’s a good summer drink for a city whose malaria rate was once so terrifying that, in 1882, a local physician proposed dealing with mosquitoes by encircling the District in a screen as tall as the Washington Monument.
Looking at Bernbach’s gussied-up beauty, I have a hard time seeing the resemblance to my parents’ G&T — or to the slovenly understudies served at middling bars, where I’ve occasionally gotten soda water subbed for tonic. The green wing of basil, the ringlet of grapefruit, the pale citrus tonic tinting the Tanqueray 10 around its single clear rectangle of ice — I can no more picture my father making it than putting on bloomers and yodeling in the street.
To be fair, it’s not like Bernbach is whipping up this G&T at home. But, he says, a good G&T should be bright and have a hook to it, and one thing the Spanish have gotten right in their G&T culture is the necessity of the right coupling: “You don’t pair just any gin with any tonic.”
Indeed, Nicole Hassoun at the Gin Joint was stocking nine tonics of her own creation (her tonic line, Chronic Tonic, will be available at the Gin Joint and several D.C. stores in July). When it comes to tonics, you want something that “pulls out the flavors of the gin without covering anything up,” she says. Sometimes her tonic concepts start with a particular gin, but other times, “I’m just at the farmers market and get ideas based on what’s fresh.”
I picked up ready-mades like Fever Tree and Q and artisanal tonic syrups like Jack Rudy, Tomr’s and Liber & Co., to play mix-and-match. On its own, D.C.’s Green Hat spring/summer batch was floral, buttery and appealing, a good gateway gin for those who might fear the more juniper-forward editions. But paired with Liber, they became one of those couples I hate being around, the tonic dominating the conversation and the gin timidly trying to interrupt. But mixed with apple-sage tonic at Red Apron in Union Market, the gin chimed in charmingly.
It reminded me of times I’d developed an impression of someone based on having known them in a bad relationship. That Green Hat’s not a nervous little mouse at all, I realized. It just didn’t belong with Liber. Liber needs to date someone who can handle him without disappearing. Maybe he could date that citrusy Tanqueray 10 chick. Or maybe a strong, juniper-forward guy like the Beefeater. I mean, why am I assuming that Liber is straight?
I should mention I had tried several G&Ts by this point.
When I finally presented my father with his drink — Citadelle paired with Tomr’s, adorned with a curl of lemon, a sprig of tarragon and honeysuckle — he inhaled the aroma and drank. He admitted it was good.
“Would you make it for yourself?”
He hesitated before confessing that no, he probably wouldn’t, that he liked the easy prep of his usual routine. He looked at me with sheepish amusement. “I’m sorry you have a father with such unsophisticated tastes,” he said.
He thought he had disappointed me, but I was secretly a little pleased. A beautiful, sexy, floral gin and tonic cannot sway my father into being someone he is not. My dad is a creature of habit, and when it comes to the “finer things” in life, I know where he stands: Inexplicably, he thinks they’re us.
Allan is the Post’s new Spirits columnist; her column appears monthly. She is a Takoma Park writer and editor. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.