Let’s take a closer look at the roster:
Gin: Liquor love rises and falls like freshly-traded shares of Facebook stock. Rum, tequila, whisky—all will have their turn in the spotlight. But what makes gin so special? Well, plenty. A great vodka is distinguished by its absence of flavor, its ability to be strong and taste like nothing at the same time. Smooth is the best adjective a vodka ever knew. Gin is nothing of the sort. Made from a deep well of botanicals—juniper, most prominently, but all varieties of herbs, flowers, and spices—a gin can be as nuanced as a great glass of Bordeaux.
Tonic: Jeffery Lindenmuth, a good friend and an exceptional writer (and consumer) of wine and spirits, has written about the gradual decline of tonic over the years from a cheek-puckering counterpoint to aromatic gin to something more closely resembling 7-up. Thankfully, producers like Fentiman’s and Q are making tonics focused more on quinine, the bitter alkaloid extracted from tree bark that forms the traditional base of tonic, than high-fructose corn syrup.
Ice: The most overlooked part of any cocktail. Bar ice is the bane of any decent drink, melting on contact and diluting stout-hearted drinks into timid shadows of their former selves. Part of the modern cocktail movement has been focused on bringing better ice to the glass. Classy cocktail lounges will use phrases like “hand-chipped ice”, which sounds ludicrous, but truth is, nothing is more vital for a good cocktail than ice that doesn’t melt—or melts at just the right pace. One of the tiny, simple pleasures of living in Spain—right up there next to street-corner churro stands and the 24-hour spinning meat dispensaries—is the ice: The cubes everywhere are bulky and rock hard; in a war between Spanish ice and your incisors, your dentist is the winner every time.
Citrus: Not half a lime sloppily squeezed and plopped into the glass, the fallback method for bad bartenders the world over, but a BandAid-size sliver of peel, carefully separated from the bitter pith of a lemon or lime. In Spain bartenders use a thin set of tongs to ruffle the peel, teasing out its fragrant essential oils, then rub the cut side all around the glass. Be sure to give it a twist before you cast it off.
In Spain, even the basic bars, the ones serving canned seafood and flat beer, know how to make a mean G and T.
These are the essential ingredients of a good gin and tonic, but every bit as essential is the glass you serve it in. Gin and tonics are normally served in a highball glass, but that defeats the whole purpose. Like a great glass of wine, a gin and tonic is about the aroma, the bouquet of the botanicals that mark the complex ingredients (at least ten, but often dozens) that go into the distillation process. To bathe in that awesome bloom you really need to plant your beak inside the glass. Hence the big-bellied cabernet glasses you find at every decent bar in Spain. Actually, this point has become so obvious that even the bad bars have figured it out.
But for me the greatest part of Spanish gin tonic culture isn’t the 12-euro cocktail that comes with a paragraph description of its virtues. It’s the fact that even the basic bars, the ones serving canned seafood and flat beer, know how to make a mean G and T. My favorite place to drink a gin tonic is a small neighborhood bar a few streets away from the Sagrada Familia called, appropriately, the Bodega de Barri (“neighborhood bar” in Catalan). The owner, Pascual, is 70 years old, with thick glasses, a shock of white hair, and a smile that stretches to Madrid.
“I drank my first gin tonic at 14 years,” he told me recently as he poured out four fingers of gin into a massive wine glass. “I hated it. But I kept coming back to it and it eventually won me over.”
Now his bar, a place where a glass of red wine comes from a massive wooden barrel and costs €1.30, stocks, at last count, 38 gins and five different tonics. Most of the regulars there, old Catalans gathered to watch FC Barcelona games and talk about “la crisis”, drink Estrella Damn and vermouth and have probably never even noticed that the huge-hearted owner is one of Barcelona’s great gin aficionados.
When I talk to Pascual about the current gin tonic craze in his country, he shakes his head. “It will last a while because they’re promoting it hard, but one day the kids will move on to rum or whisky.” But will he move on, I ask. “My love of gin has nothing to do with what other people are drinking.”
Three Countries, Three Great Gins
Most bars have been serving the same gins for the past three decades: Gordon’s and Beefeater on the cheaper end, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire Blue on the “premium” level. But these paint a woefully incomplete picture of gin’s true potential. Here are three of best of the new wave of gins to hit the market.
Gin Mare: A byproduct of the Spain’s golden age of gin tonics, this super fragrant bottle is distilled in a fishing village to the south of Barcelona. Made with the iconic flavors of the Mediterranean—thyme, rosemary, arbequina olives—it’s a spirit worthy of the Spaniards’ gin obsession.
G Vine: Most gins are made from grain, but this exceedingly delicious gin is distilled from grapes from France’s Cognac region. In the glass, its sweet and intensely floral—good enough to drink on its own, but best when paired with a low-sugar, bitter tonic like Fentiman’s.
No. 209: Stands out from the rest of the suddenly-crowded field of “premium” gins for a few reasons: It’s distilled in San Francisco, my hometown, and a place that just knows how to do food and drink right. More importantly, this is a dry gin layered with complex flavors—citrus, of course, but also cardamom and pepper spice—that reveal themselves at different moments as you work your way to the bottom of the glass. Really heady stuff.