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Spain’s Gin Game

Maybe I had scurvy or malaria, as this year I’d already been managing a near constant craving for the gin and tonic, which combats both maladies, before I even went to Spain. For me, the G&T is another man’s meatloaf: comfort food. The mere smell of the drink, floated on the effervescent spray of a recently poured bottle of tonic, carries me right back to my youth when on summer evenings my parents would relax in the backyard with a couple of icy gin and tonics and I would sit by with my virgin version — tonic and lime — trying to seem mature.

But even my very real love and respect for the drink falls flat given the reverence for it in Spain. On a recent visit through Basque lands to the north, I was shocked by the dedication of seemingly every bar and restaurant to offering a totalizing, almost overwhelming experience of the gin and tonic. They’re mad for it.

To start, most bars carry gin menus as long as some wine lists I’ve seen. Even in small towns, gin selections are stunningly complete. Beyond the gold standards like Tanqueray, Hendrick’s, Plymouth and Beefeater, one could easily find much more niche bottles such as 209 and Junipero, both from San Francisco, Blue gin from Austria, G’Vine from France, as well as brand new products such as Nolet’s from the Ketel One folks of Holland and No. 3 from London merchants Berry Bros & Rudd.

Tonic is given its proper due — anyone who values the gin and tonic knows that the latter, non-alcoholic ingredient is just as important to the drink’s ultimate success as the starring spirit — by being likewise offered in a selection of small, individually-sized bottles. (The small bottle of tonic, 200 ml, is essential to the individual G&T. Nothing is worse than flat tonic, which is what tends to come out of larger bottles and “the gun” so commonly found in American bars). Beyond the expected Schweppes, many bars offered the relatively recent arrivals of Fever Tree and Q tonics, and some even had Fentimans, a newcomer among newcomers. I thrill to the fact that we finally have a choice among tonics and that many of them are quite good. I’m a Fever Tree man, myself, not just because they were the first “artisan” tonic to arrive, but because in test after test, my palate prefers its brightness and complexity. But I know people who prefer the slightly less florid, more austere Q tonic for precisely those traits.k

Typically, in Spain, I found the cocktail built in a large glass wine goblet. Often the bartender (or bartendress, as there were many females), would begin by gently muddling a long, flat strip of lemon or lime zest in the bottom of the glass to release its oils. Then large ice cubes would be taken from a bucket with tongs and casually dropped in the glass. The gin would come next, measured with a jigger to the tune of two to three ounces and the tonic would come last, filling the glass. Perhaps a squeeze of lemon or lime would top off the beautiful, clear globe of refreshing deliciousness.

I’m not the first to become enamored of Spain’s gin and tonic obsession. My colleague and friend Jason Wilson chronicled the phenomenon in the Washington Post last spring, as did Kara Newman in Food Republic. They uncovered even more floral and elaborate preparations that included various fruits, vegetables and spices in the mix, all of which sound delightful.

But I politely dispute a couple of declarations offered in Wilson’s article. First, his statement that “There is no perfect G&T”; and, second, the opinion of a bartender he cites in the piece, who says, “There’s really no reason to stick to lime.”

The perfect G&T is one that can be made in under a minute — 30 seconds, if you’re quick. I’m also a stout believer that the perfect G&T includes a generous dousing with lime, squeezed fresh from the husk of the fruit. Indeed, to me, the lime is essential. It’s the spark that powers the drink: A Christmas tree only becomes dazzling if one plugs in its lights. And, after having done many trials, it’s the London Dry style of gin that goes best with most tonics (Plymouth, I love you, but I’m saving you for my martinis). In fact, these days nothing is a better match with the citrus and spice high notes of Fever Tree tonic than the insistent pepperiness of classic Tanqueray. Take them in a measure of 2-1, tonic to gin, in a glass filled with large ice cubes. Drizzle a half a lime, about an ounce, over the top and gently stir in. Finally, drop another wedge of lime on top for looks and aromatics. Now go and enjoy your summer.

Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo: Gin and tonic at Hotel Domine Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain. Credit: Jordan Mackay

  • Ibrahim 10·15·12

    hahahaha! I remember those days! I was never an every day dnkirer but all of a sudden I was living vicariously through my friends that could drink. I wanted to have drinks that I never even considered in the past, such as drinks with crazy umbrellas or too much fruit hanging off the side anything with alcohol! Until I had my child. Then I could drink again and I just didn’t care anymore or I was just too darn tired to! lol

  • Miguel Edls 1·10·13

    As a spaniard myself, i’m devoted to this drink, but let me tell you: if you pour lime juice into a drink with bubbles, the acid from the lime will kill them. With drinks as dry as gin and tonic, just the peel of the lime gives it just enough aroma, without putting the carbon dioxide gas out