An amorous, boozy dispatch from Spain, home of the world’s best gin and tonics

The first time I drank a gin and tonic, a real gin and tonic, it was three in the morning in an old converted castle in the tiny town of La Alberca, outside Salamanca, not more than 40 miles from the Portuguese border. It was the second night of a trip with a group of well-known American chefs—Ming Tsai, Ken Oringer, Chris Cosentino, among others—there on a fact-finding mission concerning the world of jamón iberico (fact found: jamón iberico is this the greatest piece of flesh in the world). Leading this ragtag rabble was José Andrés, king of Spanish food in the United States and a guy with an appetite for life—for every bite and sip it has to offer—that rivals the great Sun King Louis XIV.

We came from a mellow dinner at a tiny family restaurant that Andrés, with his electric personality and bottomless thirst for everything, had turned into an impromptu party, singing songs and slinging flaming cocktails across the bar while the owners looked on with a mixture of pride and utter terror. Back at the hotel, Andrés convinced the security guard—roused from slumber, disheveled, deeply confused by this great boozy pack of American men—that the hotel management had granted us access to the bar “at any hour of the night”. Not only did he give us free reign of the bar, but he stepped gingerly into the night as Andrés sent him off to the garden to gather herbs like a young prep cook.

The final product looked like a box of Crayolas: lime peel, pink peppercorns, star anise, mint.

Up until that point, I had been fond of saying that gin and tonic was my desert island drink, the one libation I would take with me into infinity and beyond. It was refreshing, not overly sweet, easy to drink by the bucket. But after a decade of ordering well G and Ts from grimy bars served in plastic cups, it’s safe to say I had never tasted the true potential of this glorious convergence of grain and bubbles.

Andrés made his in deep, wide-rimmed glasses with massive ice cubes fit unyieldingly in its base. It took 30 minutes for the drinks to come together, and the process, with its bruising, chiffonading, and wild last-second garnishing, was every bit as involved as one of those avant-garde masterpieces Andrés is known for back at his fleet of restaurants across the United States. The final product looked like a box of Crayolas: thin curls of lemon and lime peel, floating pebbles of pink peppercorns, a wedge of star anise, and a few fresh mint leaves, lightly crushed between Andrés’ fingers at the last second. It was everything a gin and tonic hadn’t been before: complex, bracing, a world of sweets and sours and bitters to be discovered in every sip.

Barca and bottles

That was the first of many during that trip as we wound our way from Salamanca to Andrés’ home region of Asturias to the north and back to Madrid. I didn’t know then, but with every sip I was growing closer to this country; nine months later, I came back for another round of drinks and never left.

When I tell people that Spain is the best place in the world to drink a gin tonic, a drink created by the British army in India as a defense system against malaria, I’m invariably met with skepticism. “Spain, really?” Really. Don’t come here to drink sangria; it’s universally mediocre no matter where you order it, an excuse to water down cheap wine, saturate it with sugar and charge twice the price. And Spanish beer, while getting better, is still pretty sad stuff.

But “gin tonics” (in Spain, they use the English name, but drop the “and” so that it comes out cleaner) have captured the attention of Spain’s chefs, bartenders and alcoholics alike. I’ve been to culinary conferences where entire sections of the billing are dedicated to the drink: gin tastings, ice cube theory, tonic summits. An auditorium packed to the brim with chefs and journalists, mouths agape as some spirit scientist discusses the best way to reverse spherify gin into clear, edible orbs.

Barcelona, like Madrid, is now flooded with bars that do nothing but serve gin tonics. There’s Bobby Gin in Gracia, with a bouncer at the door who radios your group in to a bar bathed in dark woods and soft lights. Xixbar in Poble Sec, with its cave-like corners and piercing florescent lights, has a store connected to the bar selling something like 50 types of gin from around the world. And my favorite from the cool crowd, Pesca Salada, a tiny bar tucked down a side street in the Raval, with erratic hours, a ceiling paved in metal plates and a bartender with a killer fro and a heavy hand with the hard stuff.

At all of these spots “mixologists” charge heavy tariffs for making tiny tweaks—essentially garnishes—to the average gin tonic experience. It’s fun to drink G and Ts with slivers of fresh ginger, say, or a handful of crushed Sichuan peppercorns (just as it was eye-opening to drink that first tricked-out number from José Andrés many years ago), but you don’t drink gin tonics out of a desire for creative cocktailery; you drink it for that bracing bittersweet dance between aromatic juniper-charged gin and the quinine bite of good tonic. In my mind, a gin and tonic should only have four ingredients: gin, tonic, ice, and a twist of citrus.

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.