Sunday 7 November 2010

Tonic for the troops

The guinea pigs prepare for the blind tasting
Although I often find myself sampling gins neat, I seldom actually drink gin that way for pleasure. Part of gin’s recent surge in popularity is precisely its versatility as a cocktail ingredient, but let us not forget the humble gin and tonic, which is how I suspect a lot of people almost always drink their gin. (It was for just this “silent majority” that SW4 gin was created.)

Mr Bridgman-Smith tests gins exhaustively in about 16 different ways: I’m not sure my tastebuds or my liver have the stamina, but you certainly can’t get the measure of a gin without trying a G&T. Yet it has always niggled with me that if you’re really comparing different products this way then you surely can’t ignore what probably makes up at least two thirds of your drink—the tonic.

DBS explains his elaborate scoring system. He is roundly ignored
It’s not surprising that we’ve seen a rise in the range of tonics out there too, with recent arrivals Q and 6 O’Clock joining Fever Tree and Fentimans which have been around a few years, and venerable brands such as Schweppes and Britvic. A couple of months ago we had a spontaneous tasting at one of our regular ginthusiast nights at Graphic, but DBS was determined to formalise the process and so, last Monday, we returned to blind-taste eight tonic waters.

Just as gin started life as a way of both making crap spirit taste better with a juniper infusion and as a way of preserving the medicinal benefits of juniper, so tonic water began in the days of the Raj as a way of making the daily anti-malarial quinine dose more palatable by diluting it with water and adding sugar. Inevitably someone realised it was even more palatable with gin in it.

My scoring grid, before I cover it in tonic-spattered
tasting notes that ignore the categories of bitterness.
sweetness and effervescent DBS has carefully laid out
Quinine itself came originally from South America. In 1638 Countess Chinchona, wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Peru, was cured of a fever by a local healer using bark from the native quina tree; this popularised the substance across Europe, where it cured Charles II and Louis XIV, and the tree acquired the botanical name Cinchona Officinalis after the countess. However, the bark seems to have been in use in Rome (surrounded by malarial swamps in those days) at least as early as 1631, having been brought back by Jesuits (in fact it was known as “Jesuit’s bark”). The active ingredient quinine took its name from the native word for the tree, though “cinchona” turns up in the names of fortified wines like Kina Lillet and China Martini, which both contain extracts. Peru and the other countries where it grew outlawed the export of trees and seeds, and the bark became rare and precious, but eventually seeds were smuggled out to Indonesia and the tree became widely cultivated in Asia and the West Indies.

Mind you, modern tonic waters have much less quinine (but apparently still enough to make them fluoresce under UV lighting—there’s something you can try at home), although tonic is still recommended for treating nocturnal cramps. In fact anyone genuinely wanting to take therapeutic quinine might be interested in a concentrated tonic syrup that DBS and I were given to try by Louis Xavier Victor-Smith of Hendrick’s. It’s called Battersea Quinine Cordial though I don’t think it has actually had a commercial release yet. I thought it was yummy.

The quinine cordial they don't
want you to have
However, the Battersea Quinine Cordial was not among the tonics we tasted on Monday, although we had been sent a phial of John’s Tonic Syrup all the way from Arizona—it comes as a concentrate and you add soda water.

We initially tasted the tonics neat and DBS asked us to rank them in order of preference. Although the blindness of the tasting was laudable, owing to a shortage of glassware we had to taste the samples one at a time, which meant you somehow had to remember the flavours of all of them to make a comparison. DBS, ever the instinctive taxonomist, does like to know which of any group of samples is your “favourite”, but I often don’t have one—I’m just interested in the differences. Here are my tasting notes, in the order we tasted—bearing in mind that at the time I did not know what I was tasting in each case:

Tesco own brand Lime on the nose and palate. A bit one-dimensional. Quite sweet, lacking in bitterness. Not very effervescent.

Schweppes More fizz, more dominant bitterness, less citrus than the last one. Not much happening in the aroma department.

Britvic Very effervescent, giving an interesting mouthfeel. Balanced citrus notes. Nose is more complex than previous two.

John's Tonic Syrup, handmade at the Tuck Shop
restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona
John’s Tonic Syrup This one is frankly brown, which is a bit of a giveaway (although, as we didn’t even know which tonics were on test, I guessed it was David’s own homemade tonic syrup, which is pretty terrifying). This one was unexpectedly savoury and vegetal, with an extraordinary spicy, herbal nose and earthy root flavours. Plenty of bitterness—perhaps too much for drinking on its own. Leaves a disturbing tide mark of interesting scum around the glass. Overall, quite intriguing, but a bit outside the comfort zone if tonic water is what you're after.

Fever Tree Good mouthfeel from the balanced effervescence. Plenty of citrus on the nose, although unfortunately it reminds me of some cleaning product. Good level of bitterness, though a shade too much for drinking on its own. Good balance of lemon and lime, though the taste seems a bit crude.

Schweppes Slimline Big citrus nose—though not backed up on the palate, which is pretty empty. A slightly austere mouthfeel. Overall a bit watery, which at least makes it easy enough to drink on its own.

Fentimans Rather an overwhelming nose of citrus. Big exotic flavours, including lemongrass, are a giveaway: although we weren’t trying to identify the brands, Fentimans is pretty distinctive.

6 O’Clock Very bold! Nose does have a hint of varnish but on the palate it is rather tasty.

Obliged to rank them, I put Schweppes and Britvic joint first, 6 O’Clock third, Tesco fourth, Fever Tree fifth, Fentiman’s sixth, Schweppes Slimline seventh and poor John’s tonic last. In truth I was only certain about the last three, and even then I think Fentiman’s is actually quite nice but too overwhelming as a mixer. Likewise the brown syrup is fascinating but not what I look for in a tonic water. (Or perhaps it just takes a bit of getting used to?)

The winners, by popular vote
As a group, our overall rankings put Schweppes first, Britvic and Schweppes Slimline joint second, Fever Tree and Fentimans joint fourth, Tesco and 6 O’Clock joint sixth and John’s syrup limping in lasting place. Apparently these are pretty standard results for this sort of blind test, and in fact mirror a home tasting that DBS held, where Britvic came out a surprise winner.

I don’t drink tonic water on its own, so I had no real yardstick to compare against; but I do drink G&T, and we now had a chance to taste the top three (plus 6 O’Clock, for curiosity’s sake I guess) with gin (Bombay Sapphire in this case). I added Fever Tree too, because it is what I usually drink at home. The results were a bit different:

Britvic Dominated by citrus and sweetness—too sweet for my tastes.

Schweppes Less sweet than Britvic and more citric than Fever Tree. Has a sort of neutrality about it; arguably a benchmark taste for what a tonic “should” taste like.

Fever Tree Compared to the others this is all about mid-range notes for me, warm and almost spicy (Fever Tree don’t say what goes into it but do mention “botanical oils”), compared to the high citric notes that dominate some others. It’s probably worth experimenting with matching different gins and different tonic waters.

6 O’Clock Rather nice, though I kept getting an odd hint of mustard (I was alone in this observation). This tonic was actually created to match with 6 O’Clock gin, a combination I’d be keen to try.

Schweppes Slimline Doesn’t taste much of anything.

The lesson? Well, if you’ve always used the same tonic you might well be surprised by the differences if you shop around. Mind you, if your default tonic is Schweppes then this test at least shows that you can rest assured life is not passing you by.

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