Eat & Drink

The simple gin-and-tonic cocktail gets a masterful reworking

Beverage director Scott Tipton makes his No. 1 Spanish-style gin and tonic at República in the Country Club Plaza. The customer is given the tonic water separately to add at their convenience.
Beverage director Scott Tipton makes his No. 1 Spanish-style gin and tonic at República in the Country Club Plaza. The customer is given the tonic water separately to add at their convenience. along@kcstar.com

A gin and tonic is the most straightforward of drinks. It’s easy to make, with the only variables usually being the choice of gin and strength of pour. At least that’s the American view. In Spain, they take a different approach.

There, they’ve dropped the conjunction and turned the gin-tonic into a national craze. Wine goblets filled with gin, tonic and ice are tweaked with all manner of ingredients and then topped with elaborate garnishes. The resulting cocktails are complex enough to belie the highball’s humble image, and bartenders here are taking note.

“They elevated such a simple thing to make a style of gin-tonic,” says Scott Tipton, beverage director for Bread & Butter Concepts, which opened its Spanish-centric República restaurant on the Country Club Plaza last summer. “The possibilities are endless. You can go anywhere with it.”

Tipton sampled his way through some of Barcelona’s best gin-tonic bars before returning to Kansas City to create a list for República. The seven versions he settled on range from crisp and dry to citrusy, herbal, vegetal, sweet and warmly spicy.

The options are even more varied at La Bodega, the Spanish tapas restaurant that opened on Southwest Boulevard in 1998 and expanded to Leawood in 2010. There, early experiments with a few gin-tonic specials quickly gave way to a menu laden with a dozen variations.

“We wanted something for everybody,” La Bodega assistant general manager Dave Kaleba says.

That such a menu exists at all is a testament to gin’s growing appeal. A recent browse through several local retailers showed at least twice as many brands on offer now as there were a decade ago. Some are extensions of major labels, but many more are new entries from startups.

And although London dry gins still dominate the market, there are also plenty of nontraditional offerings (often called New Western gins).

“Some have more of a peppery profile to them. Some are definitely juniper forward, and some have more exotic flavors like roses, or cucumbers, or citrus,” Kaleba says. “People who say they don’t like gin haven’t found the right gin.”

Picking gins was no easy feat for Kaleba. Go with Beefeater, Tanqueray or Plymouth? Introduce Old Toms from Sound Spirits or Hayman’s? Feature craft products such as Koval Dry Gin or Letherbee Gin?

Kaleba evaluated them all the same way he does wines, by considering the essential flavors of each and how to match them with other ingredients. In the end, they all made the cut, along with five others.

“It was an intuitive approach, and it worked its way out,” he says.

Tipton faced the same challenge at República.

“It was a process of figuring out which were drier style gins, or sweeter styles, whether they were spicy or herbal, and then deciding how to complement that,” Tipton says. “Every single gin has a completely different botanical model.”

His selections include the citrus-forward Tanqueray No. 10; the “botanical bomb” that is St. George Spirits’ Botanivore; and sweet-tart Hayman’s Sloe Gin, made from wild sloe berries, among others.

But gin is just the start. There’s tonic to consider, too. You surely know the history by now (and if you don’t, give “The Drunken Botanist” or “Bitter” a read). Jesuit priests discovered back in 1650 that quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree could be used to treat malaria. Sugar and a splash of soda water made the bitter medicine more palatable. British colonists added gin to the mix, and the gin and tonic was born.

Today’s tonic waters are hardly pharmaceutical strength, and most people give little thought to which one they reach for. That said, appreciation is growing for boutique tonics including Tipton’s go-to, Fever-Tree.

The brand launched in the U.K. 2005 but quickly found a fan in Ferran Adrià of Spain’s iconic but now-shuttered El Bulli, who some credit with fueling his country’s gin-tonic thirst. Fever-Tree eschews artificial sweeteners and preservatives, instead focusing on fresh ingredients.

Its Indian Tonic Water is dry enough for classic gin-tonics, while Tipton matches the more herbal and slightly sweeter Mediterranean Tonic with Sloane’s Gin in his No. 4 and Elderflower Tonic with Tanqueray No. 10 in his No. 3.

To make each drink, bartenders combine the spirit, any bitters, garnishes and ice in a straight-sided bodega glass and serve an open bottle of tonic alongside. Tipton likes letting guests add only as much tonic as they want, but combining spirit and botanicals — even for a few minutes — offers other benefits, too.

“Going from the bar to the table, there’s almost a slight infusion process,” Tipton says. “The gin sitting even briefly with the garnishes or botanicals adds extra nuance and flavor.”

Flavor is also the point of the No. 7, which uses the lime-lemongrass variety of Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic, made in Lincoln, Neb., to add a “citrusy zing.”

“If I have a flavor in a cocktail, I want it to count,” Tipton says. “I really wanted that syrup to be a main player, not an afterthought.”

Colonel Jesse’s cucumber-ginger tonic is also available, although it’s not what consumers are likely used to seeing — a dark brown, viscous syrup that must be diluted before drinking.

“This is what tonic looked and acted like a long time ago, before we had sophisticated bottling and carbonation technology,” says Kaleba, who uses the cucumber-ginger tonic in two of his creations. “I like how it plays with the orange flavors (in the No. 3 Naranja gin-tonic). It makes just a really tasty cocktail.”

La Bodega also pairs gins with Fentimans Tonic Water, which uses a brewing process to extract flavor from juniper berries, Kaffir lime leaves and other botanicals. The agave nectar-sweetened Q Tonic is another favorite.

Kaleba doesn’t stop there, though. Fresh ingredients and house-made bitters add character and help balance La Bodega’s gin-tonics. Rosemary hops bitters complement Koval’s peppery bite in the No. 11 Romero, Kaleba says, while grapefruit bitters, grapefruit peel and whole juniper berries play on Letherbee’s robust juniper flavor in the No. 5 Pomelo.

(Why do both República and La Bodega use numbers as names on their gin-tonic menus? Coincidence, Tipton says.)

Hendrick’s, a Scottish gin that tastes of rose petals and cucumbers, of course is paired with cucumber at La Bodega. At República, Tipton serves the same gin over a large frozen cube of fresh-pressed cucumber juice.

Despite the extra effort such ingredients require, Spanish gin-tonics are still pretty simple to make, he says. Everything goes into the glass, ice is added, garnishes placed, tonic poured, a drink enjoyed.

Maybe our approaches aren’t so different after all.

Reach Anne Brockhoff, a freelance spirits columnist and food writer, at ninemilefarm@gmail.com.

Sources

▪ Gin: The local selection of gins is at least double what it was a decade ago. The brands mentioned in this article range between $25 and $50 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Want to drink local? Try J. Rieger & Co.’s Midwestern Dry Gin or S.D. Strong Distilling’s Pillar 136.

▪ Tonic water: There’s nothing wrong with the ubiquitous brands, but boutique versions like Fever-Tree, Fentimans and Q are worth a try. Feel like experimenting with something even more different? Try the cucumber-ginger version of Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic ($25 for a 750-milliliter bottle of tonic syrup).

República’s No. 3

What Americans think of as a classic gin and tonic is pretty straightforward: gin, tonic, ice and a lime wedge. Spanish gin-tonics drop the conjunction and add modifiers and garnishes that bring out a spirit’s complexity. This version from República is “just a nice representation of how fun it is to complement the gin with auxiliary flavors,” says Scott Tipton, beverage director for Bread & Butter Concepts, which owns the restaurant.

Makes 1 drink

Fresh grapefruit peel, cut into a strip about 1 inch wide and 2 inches long

1 1/2 ounces Tanqueray No. 10 gin

1/4 ounce Combier Créme de Pamplemousse Rose grapefruit liqueur

Fever-Tree Elderflower Tonic Water

Fill a large glass partway with ice. Add grapefruit peel, gin and liqueur. Top with Elderflower Tonic Water to taste.

Per drink: 157 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 4 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

República’s No. 6

Although gin and tonics are typically considered summer sippers, the Spanish approach makes adapting them for cooler weather easy. In this gin-tonic recipe for República, Scott Tipton combined the warm spice of star anise with the tart but dark berry flavor of Hayman’s Sloe Gin.

Makes 1 drink

Fresh lemon peel, cut into a strip about 1 inch wide and 2 inches long

1 1/2 ounces Hayman’s Sloe Gin

2 whole star anise

Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water

Fill a large glass partway with ice. Twist lemon peel over ice, then rub the rim of the glass with the peel and drop it in. Add gin and star anise. Top with tonic water to taste.

Per drink: 142 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 4 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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