James Merrell
Customer’s choice: Would you like Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Oxley, or Hendrick’s gin?
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El Quencher

Gerry Dawes / May 2012

Mad dogs and Spaniards? How did the quintessential quaff of British colonials become a runaway hit in Spain?

The Ultimate Gin & Tonic has turned up in a globe-shaped glass on the bar at The Bazaar by José Andrés in the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. Not in a lounge that recalls the days of the British rule in India.

Spain—and lately its high-flying vanguard of chefs—has long had a love affair with Gin & Tonic, or “Gintonic,” as they call it. Who knew? No wonder, then, that the proliferating tapas bars in the United States are introducing Gintonic menus.

Estadio, a Spanish restaurant near Logan Circle in Washington, D.C., mixes Old Raj Gin with house-made orange thyme tonic and Tanqueray 10 with house-made elderflower citrus tonic. In Brooklyn, New York, Cynthia Diaz’s Bar Celona celebrates “Spain’s most popular tipple” by using artisanal gins, house-made tonics, and nontraditional ingredients: The Sea Monkey calls for Death’s Door Gin, house-made celery/apple juice, lemon, anise, Fever Tree Tonic, and fennel salt; El Matador has spiced gin, house-made tonic, cava, and bitters.

Andrés’ newly renovated Jaleo Restaurant and Tapas Bar in Washington, D.C., will likely outdo them all. His ThinkFoodGroup lead bartendar, Owen Thomson, has a Gintonic menu that includes Death’s Door and Fentiman’s Tonic with fennel, radish, cubeb, and kumquat; Ransom Old Tom and Bittermen’s Tonic with pickled ginger, allspice, orange, and lemon; Ridge Silver Tip and Fever Tree with tarragon, lemon, lime, and borage; Botanist & Q Tonic with coriander blossom, lemon, and lime; and Tanqueray 10 and house-made tonic with grapefruit, mint, lemon, and white pepper.

Since a Gin & Tonic is a drink ostensibly made for hot climates, many people have been drinking it—most often gin with Schweppes Tonic and a twist of lemon—for decades in Spain, where more than 200 brands of gin are sold.

The origins of Spain’s infatuation with Gintonic stretch back to colonial days. The root (or in this case, bark) of Gintonics, quinine water (known in Spain as quinquina), is derived from a tree named for the Condesa de Chinchón, the wife of the Spanish viceroy of Peru. In 1638, while her husband was serving in Lima, la Chinchona, as she was known, became very ill with malaria. After the viceroy’s physician had unsuccessfully tried several European remedies, as a last resort, native Quechua tribe healers were summoned. They brought the bark of the “fever tree,” which was ground and made into a solution that relieved the devastating malarial chills and fever. La Chinchona survived and brought the fever tree bark back to Europe in the 1640s.

But why are the Spanish chefs, in particular, so loco about Gintonics?

“The Lo Mejor de la Gastronómía conference, where so many top chefs congregated, had a lot to do with the development of the popularity of Gintonics among chefs and, by extension, the rest of Spain,” Andrés explains. “We would all be in San Sebastián—myself, Ferran Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak—drinking Gintonics and networking in the bars after each day’s sessions. The development of this communal chefs’ preference for Gintonics was all very informal; it developed little by little.”

The stoking (and slaking) of this Gintonic mania can almost certainly be traced to a bar called Dickens on the famous La Alameda, just off San Sebastián’s splendid La Concha Bay esplanade. Here and in another bar on the same street, the seemingly incongruously named Whiskey Bar, chefs gathered for daily post-conference watering and networking sessions over multiple Gintonics. The rite of passage of drinking this libation became something bordering on a religious ritual during the 10-year period when Lo Mejor de la Gastronómía took place in San Sebastián. In 2010, the conference moved to Alicante, and it was supplanted by the San Sebastián Gastronomika (see “A Basque Trilogy”).

In preparing a Gintonic, Dickens’ Joaquín Fernández—winner of the first Gintonic competition in Spain, held at San Sebastián’s Kursaal Casino in 1999—goes through an elaborate ritual that includes expertly misting lemon zest (lime only if you request it instead) by tweaking the peel with two pairs of bar tongs over super-chilled ice cubes, gently pouring the gin down the side of the glass, then filling the glass with a good tonic.

“Fernández is credited with popularizing the ‘premium’ Gintonic by offering a choice of top gins, such as Hendrick’s, Bombay Sapphire, and others,” Andrés notes. “At the time, there were few places in Spain that placed an emphasis on the aromatic qualities of Gintonics like they were doing at Dickens. Because so many chefs from Spain (and from around the world) first had a great Gintonic at Dickens, it would not be far from the truth to say that this bar was a major factor in popularizing Gintonics among chefs and, by extension, made it a much more popular drink around Spain.”

Javier de las Muelas’ Dry Martini, a legendary watering hole in Barcelona, touts its Gintonics almost as much as its namesake Martinis; Barcelona’s Hotel Arts Champagne Bar has a Gintonic-dedicated menu; and Paco Roncero’s Estado Puro tapas bars in Madrid offer a lineup of flavored Gintonics and suggest pairing a Gintonic with a roasted chicken dish. ¡Salud!