Sunday 19 June 2011

Gins and Tonics

Over the past few weeks I have found myself discussing, rarely at my instigation, my favourite cocktail with a variety of people. A gin and tonic is one of the simplest cocktails but I am not sure whether it is the drink’s simplicity, its quintessential Englishness, its inevitably refreshing and invigorating effect or a combination of all three which make it such a welcome start to any evening.

The fact that it is the start to an evening – there is only one person I know who chooses to drink gin as a post-prandial cocktail – is something which is worth bearing in mind. We spend money on finding a good bottle of wine to drink with dinner, but by then, the pre-prandial drinks and the concomitant food detract from the drinker’s appreciation of the wine. While I am not advocating scrimping on the choice of wine, I am advocating thinking about the importance of the choice of ingredients in the pre-prandial gin and tonic.

At this point it might seem likely to comment on the choice of gin. While I will, the dominant ingredient, by volume (in most people’s cases, at least) is my first port of call. Schwepps and Britvic are the mainstays of many bars and restaurants and my heart always sinks if I see the bottle is Britvic. Schwepps had always been my favoured tonic – the full fat variety, not the bitter saccharine laden diet equivalent – until I was introduced to Fever Tree whose unique selling point is that they only use natural ingredients, which means that the artificial sweeteners in other tonics are eschewed in favour of sugar. While I know some people find it too sweet (arguably they are too accustomed to the bitterer chemical taste of artificial flavourings) I was a convert on my first tasting and now just have to ignore the price: while twelve individual cans of Schwepps cost around £3.50, four individual bottles of Fever Tree cost approximately £3.00. However, as the majority of the all important first drink of an evening, this is an expense worth bearing.

I mentioned individual bottles and cans of tonic and it is, of course, always essential that the tonic is freshly opened; larger bottles – unless catering for several – are without any question a false economy.

When it comes to gin the choice is much wider. Everyone has their own favoured brand, so I will merely set out the gins I have discovered and embraced or shunned. For some reason, I have ended up trying more new gins in the past six months so these are all recent impressions.

For a long time, my favoured gin was Bombay Sapphire. Its range of botanicals was a departure from the staid and long established Gordon’s and Beefeater and it was responsible for waking me up to the intricacies of gins in the first place. Tanqueray proved a satisfactory alternative and as it often now seems to be available on special offer, and therefore more cheaply than Bombay Sapphire, it has become my standard ‘house gin’.

I had always shied away from trying Tanqueray 10 because of its cost, but coming back from the USA last year, it was on special offer in duty free and a purchase ensued. It is a delicious gin and its smoothness, but complexity of botanicals made it a worthy replacement for Bombay Sapphire.

As established and readily available gins, I would recommend all of these. However, the ones I have encountered recently are more interesting and worth comment. Another from the house of Tanqueray is Tanqueray Rangpur: this is a smaller production run and uses Rangpur lemons to give it a more citrusy and refreshing taste; it quickly became a regular in the range of gins at home.

Hendricks is probably best noted for its quirky bottle, and it is a heavier gin with flavours I associate more with a pink gin. A friend drinks it with a slice of cucumber (one of its flavours) instead of the traditional citrus fruit but, as cucumber is not one of my favoured fruits, this is an embellishment I am yet to try.

Sipsmith is a small, independent distillery in London and it is possible to find the date on which your bottle of gin was produced on their website. It is a very easy drinking gin and, to use the words of many TV pundits, full of flavour.

Sacred gin is from another small independent distillery and their interest in mixing botanicals is shown through their website from which you can purchase the different distillates to experiment with mixing your own gin (a feature for which they have trademarked the name ‘OpenSauce’ with more than a nod to the technological community). Their standard gin is again a very smooth drinking gin, but there is a brighter edge to the taste than Sipsmith. Interestingly, their name derives from the fact they include Frankincense, or Boswellia Sacra as one of the botanicals.

Williams gin is from Herefordshire and made from organic cider apples which gives it a unique taste and sadly one with which – despite trying several times – I am still not entirely convinced. Tesco’s Finest range gin was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I value: sadly on this occasion, I was unable to agree with them finding it nearly undrinkable neat (part of the obligatory tasting routine) and a subsequent waste of tonic water.

As this post is already rather cumbersome, I will refrain from commenting on my choice of citrus fruit – either lemon or lime – with particular gins, apart from saying that with Bombay Sapphire it must be lime; the other gins seem to be more forgiving but lemon is (currently, at least) my general preference.

I know there are lots of gins available which I have not touched upon and I recently discovered from which a remarkable range of gins can be purchased. While it is easy to stick with old favourites, I encourage every gin drinker to explore the different varieties available from smaller distilleries: the past six months have been my most enjoyable gin drinking months since I discovered the attraction of the drink some eighteen years ago.

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