There’s a reason the gin and tonic is a ubiquitous pairing: In the 19th century, when tonic was the preferred delivery device for antimalarial medicine, British officers in India discovered that a good dose of sugar, a squeeze of citrus, and some gin helped the bitter bubbly water go down easy. It was such a hit, in fact, that the concoction made its way around the world as something people drank for fun, not because their lives depended on it.
Over the years, however, tonic water, like most soft drinks, suffered—it grew sweeter and stickier, to the point that most bottles became full of sugar or corn syrup. Thankfully, a new generation of tonics—one less saccharine, with a bracing tartness and bitterness—came along and upended what bartenders could do with them. These upgraded versions pair well with just about any spirit, from the usual suspects of rum and vodka to more surprising choices, like vermouth. Here’s a guide for experimenting, as well as three can’t-miss tonic highballs.
1. Vermouth & Tonic
Not jut vermouth but all kinds of fortified wine—port, sherry, etc.—make excellent tonic partners, and their low alcohol content is perfect for all-day sipping. Lillet or Cocchi Americana is an excellent base, but at New York City’s cafe Dante, lead bartender Naren Young does it this way.
- 2 oz white port (like Fonseca Siroco)
- 4 oz Fever-Tree Elderflower Tonic
- 1 dash cucumber bitters
- 1 dash saline (or a pinch of salt)
Build over ice. Garnish with a long cucumber ribbon.
2. Amaros/Aberitifs & Tonic
Flavor bombs like Broulio, the bitter Italian after-dinner drink, and Suze, the herbal French liqueur, open up and soften under the influence of tonic. Pick a traditional “Indian” tonic—often made from the bark of an equatorial tree—like Q Tonic, which has a more pronounced bitter quinine structure that can stand up to botanicals. At the NoMad LA, head bartender Guillermo Bravo cutes Suze with vermouth, which turns a fluorescent lemon yellow when stirred together.
- 1 oz Suze
- 1 oz Dolin Blanc vermouth
- Q Indian Tonic
Build over ice in a highball glass and garnish with a grapefruit twist.
3. Liquors & Tonic
Avoid anything woody or smoky, like scotch or mezcal. But spirits that have a touch of natural sweetness, like pisco and rum, work beautifully. At the bistro Franchette, in New York City, bartender Sarah Morrissey uses tonic to kick up the juicy flavors of apple brandy.
- 2 oz Calvados
- 4 oz Fentimans Connoisseurs Tonic
Build over ice and garnish with a lemon peel.