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The perfect gin and tonic

by Nicholas Coldicott

“A gin and tonic is an entry-level drink,” said the ladyfriend recently. It’s easy to understand, she said, easy to drink. Like Kahlua milks and Moscow mules. A drink for people who haven’t graduated to whiskeys or rickeys.

But enough of her snobbery. The gin and tonic is one of the most popular drinks in the world; it’s got the classic bitter-sweet combination of a great cocktail; and though the recipe is manifest in the drink’s name, crafting a perfect one is harder than you think.

You’ll need a glass: a highball, preferably chilled. And that’s as far as Tokyo’s top bartenders can agree.

Some reach for the fruit first, such as Kazunari Maguchi of Ginza’s Rockfish bar, who squeezes a wedge of lime over the glass, and then drops it in. Masa Kon, bar manager at Rigoletto in Roppongi Hills, also rims the glass to add a whisper of citrus to each sip. Shinobu Ishigaki, Kanto region rep for the Nippon Bartenders Association (NBA) and owner of Ishinohana in Shibuya, juices one-sixth of a lime into the glass, then slices off the pith and flesh and sets the rind aside for later. Adding the bitter pith, he says, would ruin a good G&T.

Hisashi Kishi, owner of Star Bar in Ginza and director of technical research for the NBA, sees things differently.

“If you put a lot of lime in first, you need lots of gin, and then you’re making a gin rickey,” he says.

Kishi starts with two large, glossy cubes of ice. Glossy, he explains, because the rough stuff makes the tonic sparkle faster, producing a flatter drink. The perfect ice is also exceptionally cold and hard, chilling your drink without melting too fast.

“There’s a big difference between ice that’s minus 10 degrees and ice that’s minus 20 degrees; it’s amazing,” says Mitsuhiro Goto of Bar 510 in Shiba Koen.

Before you throw those cold, hard cubes into the glass, Rigoletto’s Kon suggests rinsing them.

“Ice is very dirty,” he says, “and if it’s been made by a machine, the impurities collect on the surface.”

Rockfish’s Maguchi agrees, but prefers to shave his cubes with a knife.

Now for the gin. By definition, they all have to taste predominantly of juniper, but it’s the other botanicals that account for the vast difference between a Beefeater and a Bombay Sapphire.

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of disagreement about the perfect gin for a gin and tonic.

Goto of Bar 510 is a Tanqueray fan. It’s nice and spicy, he says, and argues that Bombay Sapphire, the original premium gin, tastes too strongly of coriander to work well with tonic.

Maguchi of Rockfish likes Tanqueray Ten for its accessible flavor.

“Even people who don’t like gin can drink it,” he says.

For those who do like gin, perhaps a Beefeater is better. The market leader in Japan, Beefeater is crisp, clean and simple, and the 94-proof version is the choice of Ishinohana’s Ishigaki and Star Bar’s Kishi.

“If you drew a graph of gin’s characteristics, Beefeater would be right in the center,” says Ishigaki.

Unusually, Kishi mixes his Beefeater with lemon juice rather than lime.

“I like a lighter gin and tonic, and if I use Beefeater, lemon juice works better,” says Kishi. “Lime is good for spicy gins like Bombay or Tanqueray.”

Time for the tonic. And some bad news.

The tonic water you’ve been drinking is a neutered version of the real thing. The drink was created by colonial-era Brits living in India to help them imbibe quinine — a bitter antimalarial compound found in the bark of the cinchona tree. However, one man’s tonic is another man’s poison; the substance is strictly regulated in Japan for its unpleasant side effects (nausea, muscle weakness, diarrhea and death among the nastier ones). Locally produced tonics must be quinine-free. Imported tonics can contain up to 80 parts per million.

The tonic market is dominated by Schweppes (bottled by Coca-Cola in Japan) and Canada Dry (licensed by Schweppes, bottled by Coca-Cola) and, though Coca-Cola is cagey about revealing the quantity of quinine in either drink, it admits that the imported versions contain the compound for fragrance rather than flavor.

The ladyfriend smuggled some Schweppes from the United States, and the illicit tonic was discernibly more bitter than its Japanese equivalent, but both were overwhelmed by sickly sweet high-fructose corn syrup. Pouring this gloop over a good gin would be like dousing your kaiseki in ketchup.

Fortunately, there are now quality alternatives. New York’s Q tonic is made from Peruvian quinine and sweetened with organic agave; Fever Tree tonic from the U.K. uses Rwandan quinine and is sweetened with cane sugar. Though both boast of their natural ingredients, they’ve taken very different approaches. Fever Tree tastes just as you’d imagine a gourmet tonic would: bittersweet, full-bodied and far fresher than the market-leading treacles. Q is much more delicate. With just a hint of sweetness from the agave, it’s designed with the quinine in mind. Neither brand is available in Japan yet, though Q plans to launch here next year.

In a taste test of G&Ts using various tonics — Canada Dry, Schweppes (both Japan and U.S. versions), Wilkinson, Y’s, Fever Tree and Q — the most remarkable difference occurred a few minutes after the drinks had been poured. Only those mixed with Fever Tree and Q had kept their gin fragrance; the drinks with the corn syrup now smelled of nothing at all.

Once you’ve selected and smuggled in your premium tonic, be careful how you pour it. Kishi of Star Bar, the chap who uses glossy ice to minimize unnecessary sparkle, avoids pouring his tonic onto the ice — again to preserve the fizz. In Shibuya, Ishigaki advises leaving a little ice poking through the tonic. This way, he says, you can twist the rind you set aside earlier and add the zest’s oils to the top cube — the one that bumps you on the nose each time you sip.

Some bartenders say that a perfect gin and tonic needs a dash of soda on top.

“It makes it more refreshing,” says Star Bar’s Kishi; “Only using tonic makes the drink too sweet,” says Maguchi.

And finally, another contentious issue: how much to stir. Yuji Saito of Radio Bar in Aoyama suggests that “if the bartender knows how to make a cocktail, they know that the bubbles are strong enough to mix the drink by themselves, so you don’t need to stir.”

Not everyone agrees. Kazuya Watanabe, president of the Japan Hotel Bartenders Association, suggests sliding a bar spoon under the ice and lifting the cubes once. Kishi, who uses two large ice cubes, taps the top cube against the one beneath it.

Techniques might vary, but they are all delicate and designed to protect the sparkle.

So the perfect gin and tonic is a chilled glass of lime and rinsed rock-hard ice (or vice versa, and possibly lemon, depending on the gin), your favorite juniper-infused spirit, a not-yet-available fancy tonic (poured clear of the ice), a dash of soda (if you like), a twist of citrus oil and perhaps a gentle nudge with a bar spoon.

Or as Kishi, the NBA’s director of technical research, puts it: “There’s no such thing as a perfect gin and tonic.”