K: What I’m about to talk about here today is not really anything particularly “Southern”, although the southern states certainly did have their fair share of Malaria back in the day, and it DOES get awfully hot in the South, requiring us to quaff many an ice-cold beverage…….and I guess we certainly do also have a reputation for loving our booze. So…OK…if I REALLY stretched it, I could somehow find some sort of Southern theme in here. I’m not going to bother though. I started off down a tangent recently that has everything to do with ME and probably not all that much to do with my culture. Other than the drinking. And the hot.
Gin and tonics, yeah? The quintessential summer highball! Well, no. Not for me. I was never a gin drinker. Until about a year ago, I’d have told you that I just didn’t drink gin. Ever. Never, ever because….ew….who drinks pine tree sap when they can have sweet, caramel-y rum, or crisp, vibrant tequila? No sane person, right? Right! But…thanks to a trusted bartender (here, if you’re curious – Hi Melinda!) I have recently discovered that I was dead wrong about gin. It turns out that I DO like gin. Kind of a lot. More than is perhaps reasonable for someone who was an avowed gin-hater less than a year ago. I mean, I’m unlikely to ever just sit down with a glass over ice like I will with a nice brown liquor, but that’s not a thing I do in the summer anyway. And we WERE talking about summer, weren’t we? Yes we were.
Now, a few weeks ago, as the winter wore grudgingly on and I wanted to pretend spring was coming, I started thinking about the gin & tonic. I thought about how I’d never liked them, assumed it was because I didn’t like the gin part of the equation, and never thought about it again. But now I LIKE gin, so I decided to decided to figure out the perfect G&T for the upcoming summer. I began trying various different commercial tonics and tonic syrups, in search of this perfect thing, but still just couldn’t quite get behind anything I found. Since we’ve already established that it’s not the gin, I already know I love fizzy drinks (home soda-making addict for nearly 5 years now), and I already use enough limes to support a small island nation on a regular basis, the culprit clearly had to be the tonic. So I did what any normal person does. I decided to try to make my own. I mean, I’ve been making syrups for our SodaStream since the beginning, so this didn’t seem especially exotic.
It took a month, and trials of three different recipes to finally narrow this down to my particular tastes, and this is where I landed. A bright, citrus-forward, low-herb, tonic with enough bitterness from the cinchona bark (see notes below on what this is and where to get it) to stand up to any gin I’m likely to drink. For the record, I’m still not a huge fan of strong juniper flavors, so keep that in mind if you happen to love a lot of pine forest in your gins. If you DO love the juniper, you try this, and it works for you, I’d LOVE to hear about it, so please come back and tell us in the comments!
1/2 C. Cinchona Bark, cut – NOT powdered (see notes for more info)
1 Grapefruit – All the zest, and 6 oz. of the juice
1 Lime – zest and juice
1 Orange – zest and juice
1 Lemon Grass stalk – lower portion only
1 tsp Salt
4 C. Water
3 C. Sugar
4 TBS Citric acid (sold in brew stores, cheese-making supplies, and of course Amazon.com)
1. Bring Cinchona bark and water to a nice rolling boil in a large saucepan, and boil 20 mins while zesting and juicing the citrus.
2. Zest and juice each fruit (I just used a very sharp veg peeler for straining ease, but a microplane is also fine) and dice the lemon grass.
3. After 20 minutes at a boil, add the zest and juices of the citrus, along with the lemon grass and salt, to the pot. Return to a boil for 2 or 3 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to steep at least 20 minutes, but no more than an hour.
4. Strain out solids with as fine a strainer as you can lay your hands on, and a couple of layers of muslin or fine cheesecloth if you have it. If a little of the cinchona powder ends up in your tonic, it’s not a huge issue. It will be more cloudy than, say…a commercial tonic syrup, but it will settle out, and can be managed with careful pouring later. I’m lucky enough to have both an extra-fine chinois AND ‘butter muslin’ used in cheese-making, and STILL I had a bit of residue, so believe me, the cinchona powder is a giant pain in the ass and you just SHOULD NOT stress about it.
5. Once the solids are strained out, return the liquid to the saucepan and add the sugar and citric acid. Heat this over med-hig heat, stirring frequently, until sugar is completely dissolved. There is no need to bring this to a boil again.
6. Cool completely, and put in your bottle of choice. Put this glorious bottle in your refrigerator.
DO refrigerate this syrup. It is NOT shelf-stable. It lasts quite a while in the fridge. That is to say….it has so far lasted as long as it has taken me to drink through each batch. Let’s just say a month, as a ballpark.
What? OH!! You want to know how to DRINK it? Well, OK, I’ll give you my ratios, but keep in mind…everyone’s tastes are different, so DO play around with the following recipe. If you hit on some sort of ‘perfect’ ratio that ALL of your gin-swilling friends magically adore, please – for the love of summer – come back and tell us about it!
The Communal G&T
3/4 oz Plymouth gin (or other dry, English-style gin)
1/2 oz Tonic syrup
Dash Celery bitters
4 oz Soda (I used our SodaStream, but bottled/canned is also fine)
Build drink in glass, starting with gin, tonic, and celery bitters. Stir well with ice. Top with more ice and soda. Garnish with split lime wedge, which should definitely be squeezed over the drink and tossed in with an air of Imperial Gusto.
Also, call me a heathen, but I ALWAYS want a straw. ALWAYS.
What the hell is Cinchona Bark?!? In short, it’s the bark of a Peruvian shrub and is the natural source of the Quinine we use to fight malaria. We don’t generally use the bark any longer on a large scale. We definitely still use quinine, but primarily it is a synthetic, highly concentrated, controlled-substance version. We normal peeps have to tincture it out of the bark, which is sometimes difficult to find. I find the powdered version UTTERLY annoying to deal with, and would probably never have made my second batch if I hadn’t found the cut version at Penn Herbs. Save yourself the hassle. Don’t use the powder. IF, for whatever reason, that’s all you can lay your hands on, don’t boil it separately for the additional 20 mins. Just add it and the citrus juices and peels at the same time and follow the directions from there. ALSO, if that’s what you need to use, go here first and read this….and perhaps have a bit of a ‘tot’ before you start….