It all started with the expansion of the British Empire. As they spread East and South to temperate climates, they discovered a pesky parasite in the form of Plasmodium falciparum carried by the female Anopheles mosquito. It had been known as early as the 17th century that the bark of the cinchona tree contained something that could treat the dreaded fevers and chills produced my malaria. However, the compound that could treat malaria was also very bitter, so it was usually added to sweetened water to improve its palatability. Crafty Brits added gin to this quinine solution to make it easier to swallow, and eventually the gin and tonic became part of British cocktail time.
Fast forward about two centuries. The Gochiso Gourmet discovers that he also enjoys an occasional gin and tonic. A little sweet, a little bitter and perfect with a squeeze of lime. Refreshing on those hot Hawaiian summer days or perfect while listening to some cool jazz. Of course, as cocktail culture expands and bar tendering rises to a noble profession with the likes of Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Ganim (they’re also called mixologists now, not bartenders), simple “hooch” is no longer the poison of choice as infused vodkas, small batch bourbon and rye whiskeys, single malt scotches and hand crafted gins become the rage.
And where non-descript grain alcohol (vodka) distilled with juniper berries creates most of the commercial gin, distillers now do double, triple and even quintuple distillations for the purest product and they’re infused not just with basic juniper and other dried herbs, but the finest cinnamon from Vietnam, organic fennel seeds from Italy, iris petals and the like. And I do give in to sample some of these “high end” gins. My favorites for the basic gin and tonic are the iris infused light blue Magellan, the subtle Bombay Sapphire and the perfumed Martin Miller.
When I desire a darker flavored gin, I reach for the Scotch barrel aged Kensington or oak barrel aged Rusty Blade. Or sometimes I just like the citrusy qualities of Tanqueray Rangpur. However these libations come with heavier price tags starting in the high $20 range up to the $60 range. And I never really thought about it but I was mixing them with $3 bottles of heavily sweetened tonic water. In fact, most of what I was sipping was tonic water. It’s almost like purchasing Wagyu beef just to make chili or otoro to pan fry. Shouldn’t the mixer elevate the alcohol, and not simply cover it up?
Jordan Silbert asked himself that same question while sipping a gin and tonic and in 2004 launched his own line of tonic water, Q Tonic produced with Peruvian cinchona and sweetened with agave syrup. I first tried Q Tonic about three years ago and haven’t returned to Schweppes or Canada Dry since then. If your favorite gin is Beefeater, Gilbey’s or Gordon’s, then Schweppes or Canada Dry is perfectly fine, but for the costlier alternatives, I’m willing to ante up the extra cash for Q Tonic.
However, if gin isn’t your cup of tea (I only know a small handful of people who prefer gin over other liquors), how about trying my Asian Grace. I created this libation about two months ago when I was in charge of creating cocktails at a dinner party. Of course, I eventually brought three cocktails in tow and since man (and woman) can’t live with cocktails alone, I paired each cocktail with a cocktail appetizer. I rolled soaked mochi rice, chopped lup cheong, shiitake and bamboo shoots in grape leaves and baked them for my Asian Dolmas served with the Asian Grace cocktail.
3 ounces of St Germain elderflower liquor
1 1/2 ounces of Soho lychee liquor
1/2 ounce of Canton ginger liquor
10 ounces of Q Tonic
Lemongrass “swizzle” stick (optional)
Mix the three liquors and the Q Tonic and pour over a highball glass filled with ice. Decorate with the lemongrass “swizzle” stick. Makes three to four drinks.
It was very encouraging that Hank Adaniya of Hank’s Haute Dogs in Honolulu and formerly of Trio in Chicago which launched the careers of celebrity chefs Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto and Grant Achatz enjoyed the libation so much that he asked for a second serving — in a larger glass!
Once the Q Tonic started selling nationally, several other sodas appeared including Q Ginger, Q Club and Q Kola. Like the original, these sodas are also sweetened with agave syrup so they also don’t have the cloying sweetness of heavily sugared sodas. And again they do cost more but since I don’t routinely drink soda and only have a mixed drink now and then, I’m willing to pay the price for the quality.
The idea for this drink may have been genetic. Well, not genetic since I wasn’t born a pharmacist, but the original Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola recipes were created by pharmacists for the same reason why Brits added gin to their quinine solutions, to cover up the taste of the medication. And while compounding is rarely done in a pharmacy these days, I can still do kitchen (or bar) compounding in my off hours. I always order a Manhattan when dining at a steak house since it seems to be that quintessential steakhouse cocktail. This version just reduces some of the rough edges of the alcohol.
6 ounces rye whiskey
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
1 tbsp maraschino liquor
12 dashes orange bitters
8 ounces Q Kola
3 to 4 maraschino cherries for garnish
Mix the first four ingredients then carefully add the Q Kola. Pour over ice in a cocktail glass and garnish with the maraschino cherry. Makes three to four drinks.
So the next time you feel in the mood for a cocktail or two, you might consider selecting your mixer as carefully as your liquor. As I’ve come to realize, it does make a world of difference and though it may not keep the malaria fever at bay, it may create a whole new Q Fever …
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.