Revisit the G&T this summer | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Revisit the G&T this summer

“The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

The gin and tonic might just be the perfect summer drink. Sharp and herbaceous, gin already tastes like summer; combining it with bitter tonic and a lot of ice makes for the ultimate warm weather highball. Simple in concept but complex in flavor, the G&T continues to endure centuries after its invention. 

Like many beloved beverages, the gin and tonic has medicinal origins. In the 1700s, quinine was found to be an effective treatment for malaria, which had dogged the British army for centuries. Extracted from the bark of a South American tree called cinchona, quinine powder soon became the go-to preventative measure for malaria throughout the British Empire. The only problem was the taste — quinine is exceedingly bitter. British soldiers took to mixing the powder with sugar and water, and improved the formula even more when they tipped in their daily ration of gin. As Winston Churchill quipped, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

Though modern medicine has developed better malaria treatments than a daily G&T, the cocktail remains as popular as ever. You can order it in just about any bar in the world, or prepare it at home on a moment’s notice. In Spain, the cocktail is something of a national obsession. “Gin-tonic” bars serve up dozens of versions of the drink, presented in goblets and elaborately garnished. In America, bartenders experiment with innovations on the basic template, from house-made tonic to ice cubes made of frozen cucumber juice.

Of course, you don’t need to start foraging for cinchona bark to make a great gin and tonic. Since it’s a two ingredient cocktail, be sure to select good ones. London dry gins like Beefeater and Tanqueray are classic choices, yielding a sharp cocktail with a piney bite. For a softer gin and tonic, try modern gins like Hendrick’s or Bluecoat, which dial back the juniper in favor of other botanicals.

Crummy tonic is the surest way to ruin your G&T. Plenty of bars are guilty of using flat or inferior tonic water, or, even worse, just subbing soda water from the gun. Luckily, quality tonics made with real sugar and quinine are widely available. Companies like Fever Tree, Q Drinks, and Pittsburgh’s own Natrona Bottling Co. make proper tonic water that’s bitter, fizzy and refreshing.

When it comes time to garnish, feel free to get creative. Citrus is a must, though you could skip the classic lime and use grapefruit or lemon instead. Let the bounty of summer inspire you, accenting with herbs and berries from the garden, or toss in whole spices like star anise, cinnamon sticks, or juniper berries. Use the flavors of the gin as a guide, and serve it Spanish style by submerging all of your garnishes in the glass. 

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