During my family's summers on the shore in Point Pleasant, N.J., I learned a lot about gin and tonics, the iconic beachside drink. My dad, an intrepid ocean sailor and sport fisherman, took pride in serving this summer elixir. When he invited friends over, it was not just for cocktails on the dock, it was for a good "G&T."
Composed of just three components (gin, tonic and lime), the gin and tonic is straightforward. But to make it right -- as my father insisted -- you need the finest components in the right proportions.
If Dad were here mixing a G&T, he'd offer a little history: The gin and tonic was born in India in the mid-1800s when ingenious British officers in the Indian Army improved the taste of quinine, their bitter anti-malaria medicine, by mixing it with charged water (soda), sugar and gin. It wasn't long before the gin and tonic became the quintessential toast of the British Empire.
Since its creation, the trick has been to balance the bitterness of the quinine with the piney notes of gin and the tang of lime (though Brits prefer lemon). When making it yourself, keep in mind that the quinine should be bubbly and dry rather than sweet. When searching for tonic, small, single-serving bottles are your best bet. Schweppes and Canada Dry come in the right-sized 8-ounce bottles and cans, but they are sweetened with corn syrup and are cloying. Hansen's natural tonic in an 8-ounce can, with cane sugar, is fresh-tasting and makes a fine, economical choice.
The premium, and hence more expensive quinine, Q, is crafted in small batches with what they call pharmaceutical-grade quinine from a cinchona plantation in the Congo. It contains agave nectar, not sugar, so has a more pronounced bitterness that is mellow and smooth. Packaged in 8-ounce bottles, it is available in most grocery and liquor stores. An equally good choice, Fever-Tree, in 6.8-ounce bottles, is less easy to find. Both are pricey (about $9 a six-pack) and are available online.
The gin and the tonic
Gin, one of the earlier spirits dating back to the Middle Ages, always contains juniper. For a classic G&T, you'll want "London Dry" gin, which means the juniper and other botanicals are added during the distilling process, so they are present but not overpowering. (Dutch or Belgian gin is distilled from barley malt and resembles whiskey).
The term London Dry dates to 16th-century London, when gin was cheaper than beer and safer than water. Up until the 1800s, London produced more than 90 percent of the English gin in 40 distilleries. Beefeater has outlasted the competition and is the sole gin distiller in London today. This subtle, smooth gin was my dad's first choice. (He also liked Tanqueray Dry, another traditional London Dry that is a bit harsher.) While there are numerous premium gins on the market, most are handcrafted with a range of botanicals (anise, angelica, cinnamon, saffron, coriander, nutmeg, cassia, as well as juniper) and their flavors are so distinct that they are best enjoyed straight up or in a dry martini. The flavor of the tonic in a G&T should be the predominant taste.
On these shores, Death's Door Gin from Door County, Wis., rivals the Old World spirits. It's distilled from Washington Island's organic wheat and local herbs -- acerbic juniper, citrusy coriander seeds and anise-scented fennel. The bottle, with a nautical map of the dangerous passage between Washington Island and Door County's mainland, is beautiful and makes a fine gift.
The final finish on the gin and tonic is lime or the British-style lemon. My dad cut the lime into wedges to squeeze over the glass. He'd then drop it in as a final flourish where it would hang like a vibrant green smile.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."