Making a splash with tonic

Many rituals come with the first day of summer. Break out the grill. Put up the hammock. Jump in the pool. Strap on the white espadrilles. Pull on the pink shorts with the lobster motif. It's time to start smelling citronella, tasting watermelon and seeing the stars.

But there is one tradition on the official start of summer that many cocktail connoisseurs look forward to with almost religious ecstasy: the first gin-and-tonic of the season. Is there anything better than a tall glass (with sweating beads of water) filled with crystal ice, fragrant gin, fizzy tonic and a hubba-hubba green wedge of lime?

No. Except, this year, there's room for improvement. The GT is getting a welcome overhaul this summer. We're not talking about any of the fancy gins that have come on the market. We're talking about the tonic. The very stuff that imparts the tart smack to the most quintessential summer cocktail is getting an upgrade. Boutique tonics have arrived.

Now you may think that a splash of Schweppes or Canada Dry is perfectly fine. After all, they've been the staple for generations of GTs. But upscale tonic waters &

Q Tonic, Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water, and Stirrings Tonic Water &

are now on the market with a quest to radically improve the image of tonic and, in the process, elevate the overall gin-and-tonic experience.

The concept of a better tonic is bold and profoundly elementary. If tonic makes up anywhere from half to two-thirds to three-fourths of a gin-and-tonic (or a vodka tonic, for that matter), wouldn't it stand to reason that it should taste good? If so, why has it taken so long for better tonics to invade the turf dominated by Schweppes and Canada Dry? And even if boutique tonics were widely available (they're not yet), will the average GT sipper pay more than twice as much for a superior shot of fizz and quinine?

These are legitimate questions in a cocktail culture that has seen the explosion of high-end vodka and now &

a boon for GTers &

a new wave of upscale gins. It would stand to reason that a consumer who would pay $30 to $40 for a boutique gin or vodka would care enough to spend a few dollars more for a superior tonic.

At least that's the logic. Makers of upscale tonics pride themselves on superior ingredients. None uses high-fructose corn syrup, which has supplanted sugar in mass-produced tonic; none uses synthetic flavorings. Q Tonic, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., uses organic agave nectar as its sweetener, combined with hand-picked Andean quinine (extracted from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, it gives tonic its familiar bitter taste), lemon juice and triple-purified water.

Fever-Tree, based in the United Kingdom but now available in some U.S. markets, blends Tanzanian bitter orange oil, African marigold and coriander and lime oils with cane sugar, spring water and high-quality natural quinine. Stirrings, a Nantucket, Mass., company that produces a line of upscale cocktail essentials, makes its tonic from triple-filtered water, cane sugar and natural quinine.

The boutique tonic experience costs about twice as much as supermarket tonic. A six-pack of 10-ounce bottles of Canada Dry tonic water costs about $3.80 (about 63 cents per bottle). Stirrings, the first on the market with premium tonic, sells its tonic for about $5 for a four-pack of 6.3-ounce bottles ($1.25 per bottle; available at select Whole Foods and ). Fever-Tree costs about $6 for a four-pack of 6.8-ounce bottles ($1.50 per bottle; available at Food Emporiums in Connecticut later this month, and at Whole Foods in California). Q Tonic is available at only a few restaurants in New York, including Gramercy Tavern, but is expected to have retail outlets after July 4. Q Tonic will sell for about $10 for a four-pack of 6.3-ounce bottles ($2.50 per bottle; for information, see ).

Worth it? Anyone who has tasted the upscale tonics will readily answer yes. Brian Smith, bartender at Max Oyster Bar in West Hartford, Conn., compared a gin-and-tonic made with Fever-Tree tonic with the bar tonic the restaurant uses. He says the Fever-Tree tonic provides a pure quinine taste without the cloyingly sweet sugars of bar tonic.

"The gin, therefore, comes through," he says.

Which is why some gin drinkers, especially those who favor the boutique gins, may want to upgrade their tonics. Smith sees a niche market for upscale tonics: "Every liquor has gone through the boutique thing, why not mixers?"

That's precisely the thing Charles Rolls was going for when he created Fever-Tree mixers. The man responsible for the rebirth of Plymouth Gin, the venerable British brand he revived in 1997, turned his attentions to upscale mixers in 2002. The utter illogic of pairing fine spirits with inferior mixers spurred him to create a line of mixers that is just now breaking into some U.S. markets.

"What I learned was that too often the gin-and-tonic was either spoiled by the cheap sweeteners, by being too warm, or by being flat and not really fizzy," Rolls says. "The new gins are doing a great job taking forward a message that not all gins are the same. Yes, there is juniper in the gin but also coriander, cardamom, cubeb, rose, cucumber &

a plethora of really notable herbs and spices that can be detected particularly on the nose, but also on the palate. So then how crazy to spoil that with a mixer which is so overpowering that you cannot smell or taste the difference between, say, Sapphire and tonic and Gordon's and tonic?" (Optional add end)

Jordan Silbert agrees. The Brooklyn, N.Y., resident says he experienced a tonic epiphany one night about four years ago when he had friends over for GTs in his back yard.

"Two drinks in, my teeth started to feel really sticky," he says. He reached for the tonic bottle and found that it was loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, just like a Sprite or 7-Up. "I thought, that's ridiculous. Why isn't there a tonic water as good as the gin we're mixing it with?" The next day he started researching tonic waters and ordered cinchona tree bark on the Internet to concoct tonic water in his kitchen. Years later, the result is Q Tonic, which may be the Cadillac of tonics on the market. Silbert, whose clients include a handful of serious cocktail purveyors in Manhattan, says he finally achieved the perfect tonic water: a quick quinine sharpness that gives way to a long, rounded sweetness that complements the juniper in gin.

His devotion to a better tonic will no doubt pay off for Silbert, whose in-the-know bartender friends can easily hand-sell a better tonic to a cocktail community eager for the best of everything.

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