Posted on April 27th, 2011
It was only when I sat the wrinkled brown paper bag on the table at the bridal shower that I started to feel self-conscious. Beautifully-wrapped large rectangular boxes containing lovely things and useful appliances had already started to accumulate, and here I was, placing what looked like a prankster’s bag of dog shit in their midst. I looked around for a Sharpie in order to write some kind of witty explanation on the bag, but all I could think of was “artisanal tonic syrup” and that would probably just make it seem worse.
To be fair, everyone invited to the bridal shower had been asked to record a favorite recipe on a provided card for inclusion in a decorated recipe box for the bride. The recipe I chose was for a gin and tonic made with homemade tonic syrup. As I was writing down the ingredients, I realized it was pretty obnoxious to suggest that someone make something that requires the powdered root of the cinchona tree– especially if they have no reason to believe that it would even be worth the trouble of acquiring some. I decided that the recipe needed to be accompanied by a kit of ingredients and a little bottle of ready-made tonic syrup to sample. So I put some citric acid in a sketchy-looking 50ml plastic tube, some cinchona bark powder in a little jar, and a glass bottle of enough tonic syrup for two G&Ts.
When it was time for the bride to open her presents, I started to get anxious. Gift-givers were piping up to elaborate on features of their presents and the rest of the audience would “oooh” or “ahhh” in appreciation. I hadn’t fully grasped how much in the spirit of “show-and-tell” bridal showers were, and here I’d brought the awkward lump of pet moss. As a bridesmaid my position was at the front of the room, helping to hand gifts to the bride, and I was tempted to just toss my paper bag under the table to avoid my turn– but it was too late.
“Well, normal tonic water contains a lot of high-fructose corn syrup” I heard myself explaining as the bride held up the small bottle of brown liquid so everyone could see. “It’s just so sweet, and it cheapens the taste of basically any gin– but you can make your own out of tree bark!”
Although I’m sure a good portion of the audience had now correctly assumed that I’d been home-schooled in Woodstock, NY, it was an accepting group and there were lots of generous head nods and “ohhhs,” and a couple of cackles when the tube of white crystalline citric acid came out of the bag. The bride thanked me and said that she was excited to try it. Months later, at the same bride’s bachelorette party, I found myself struggling to finish a G&T from the bar of a thumpy dance club. The cloying sweetness was enough to overpower both the gin and what little quinine was actually in solution. And there, under the flashing lights, I came to accept that I was a true tonic snob. The dance club beats made for a very a tribal accompaniment to my inner realization and I stomped rhythmically around the dance floor in celebration and reflection. What was the origin of my snobbery?
That’s easy– it was the frosted glass bottle of $7 Q Tonic I saw in the “Natural” section of our local Shaws supermarket. It caught my eye, felt good in my hand, and when I read that it didn’t contain high-fructose corn syrup all that was wrong with soda-aisle tonic water became apparent. Every time I’d asked for a Hendrick’s and tonic, something only slightly less trashy than mountain dew had been the fine gin’s diluent. Mr. Silbert had come to a similar conclusion more than five years earlier, and I was ready to agree.
Once my palate had become acclimated to the more subtle and refreshing tastes of Q Tonic, I was primed for the next step. Knowing me well, a friend shipped a container of cinchona bark powder to my apartment for Christmas and it was all over. Within 24 hours I was sipping brown G&Ts and reveling in the simple, tart, refreshment. As the recipe I followed states, you can add any number of botanical enhancements to your own tonic formulation, but it’s best to start with the cleanest of flavors first to see what you’ve been missing.
And, while spirit-dancing around the club I felt that there was no good reason why most bars don’t offer G&Ts with housemade tonic. Gin and tonics are wonderful summer drinks, not just something to be drained in a windowless club as a knee-jerk drink request– and it’s the astringent quinine that makes them so, not the corn syrup. Check out some recipes for tonic syrup, score some cinchona powder, and see for yourself what a little decoction action can lead to.