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Inside Spain's Crazed Thirst For the Classic Gin Tonic

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The fervor with which Spaniards drink gin & tonics is, to say the least, impressive. All throughout the country, there's a growing interest in mixology, mostly thanks to the interest in that one drink. Today, in honor of Cocktail Week, former Food & Wine operative and current San Sebastian resident Kevin Patricio walks us through the phenomenon.

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[Photo: Flickr/Toolmantim]

There are certain things you can expect when you travel to Spain: silky jamón ibérico, guilt-free siestas, and believe it or not, delicious gin & tonics. Yes, the country whose different regions can't decide whether they actually want to be a part of the mother country can agree on one thing — that the gin tonic is the national drink (and that ampersands are expendable).

From Cadiz in the south to San Sebastian in the north, the gin tonic is the undisputed king of highballs in Spain. While the ron cola (rum & coke) is widely consumed, that all pales in comparison to the volume and fervor associated with the gin tonic. Bars only a step-up from the local dive boast deep gin lists. Here's why the gin tonic has taken off in Spain, how most bartenders get it right (and some get it wrong), as well as a couple of key places to drink the stuff around the country.

Three Key Factors

For years, the gin & tonic languished in obscurity in the United States — something it pretty much still does — thanks to corn-syrup-laden tonic and pitiful ice cubes. Only recently have good gin & tonics begun to surface, but in Spain, the gin tonic never left, and its fame has only grown. Three unchanged factors contribute to its venerability:

1) Good Tonic: Large-scale producers of tonic, like the ubiquitous Schweppes, never swapped real cane sugar for the cheaper high-fructose imposter. The result is a well-balanced mixer of real sugar sweetness, cut with angular quinine bitterness. The UK-based Fever-Tree brand has a made a dent, and others like Fentimans are also gaining some market share.

2) Gas Station Ice: Ice in Spain varies little from gas stations to three-Michelin-starred restaurants. It's big and cylindrical, with a small dimple at one end, which ensures that cocktails won't get watered down.

3) Technique: If you've never seen it, a Spanish barman's technique for making a gin tonic seems like a big show, but it's actually a streamlined technique for building a perfect drink with no ingredient-hand contact. Everything is done with spring-loaded pincers.

Video: A Gin Tonic Demo at Negresco, in Valencia

Video: Untraditional Gin and Tonic Technique by Javier Caballero

You begin the process by placing seven or eight big cubes in a chilled glass, usually a balloon glass similar to a Cabernet wine goblet. Then you pour the gin, gently adding the tonic to preserve effervescence. You then twist and pinch a lemon or lime above the glass, before passing it around the rim and dropping it in. Finally, you caress the mix with a gentle stir.

The Gin

Then there's the gin. More than anything else, the boom in the variety of gin producers is what has taken Spain's domestic gin passion and turned it into an obsession. Gin, unlike many other spirits, requires no aging and is quick to market. When demand exploded, liquor companies were able to quickly respond. The Spanish fully embraced it.

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On a regular night at San Sebastian's popular Dickens bar, empty goblets (still filled with ice) will pile up on tables. [Photo: Gabe Ulla/Eater.com]

As for the selection of gins: classics like Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Seagrams adorn every bar top, and higher end staples like Cadenhead's Old Raj and Plymouth have found themselves in higher demand. At the same time, some new favorites have emerged, like Hendrick's, Martin Miller's, and Monkey 47. Of course, some clowns decided to make gin as well — welcome Brockman's, Cool, and Edgerton Original Pink.

It's Not All Perfect

What's good and true can give way to folly, and gin production and the Spaniard's approach to the gin tonic aren't always without their flaws. Let's take, for instance, the "garnish situation." Bars, far too many bars, are making a gin salad by putting an array of garnishes in what is a perfectly made gin tonic. They're trying to wow, when all they manage to achieve is showing people they have no idea when to stop. A cucumber, a frozen raspberry, a slice of strawberry, a lemon-lime twist — sometimes all in the same glass — is overkill and amateur. Juniper berries, which are the garnish of the moment, offer little more than annoyance, since you have to artfully dodge swallowing them and then elegantly spit them out.

Tonics are also not immune to pathetic excess. While Schweppes made a good move not switching to corn syrup (in Europe at least), it failed by rolling out a new line of flavored tonics: orange blossom and lavender, ginger and cardamom, and pink peppercorn. This behavior only encourages other disasters like Me Tonic by Borney, which is flavored with yuzu. It tastes like 7-Up that's been open for two days and dosed with Rose's Lime.

schweppes-flavored-tonic.jpg Flavored tonics. [Photo: Schweppes]

Regardless of all the occasional noise, all of the flash and flair, all the garish garnish, and outright ridiculousness, Spain still makes the best classic gin tonic in the world. The London dry is in no danger of being eclipsed by its techno-berry-infused-trailer park counterparts. The real barman's desire to please won't be usurped by his desire for the spectacular. Spain has a penchant for innovation, especially in all things gastronomic, but when it comes to the gin tonic, tradition might be the best route.

As mentioned before, any decent bar will likely take their gin tonics seriously, but here are four spots in major Spanish drinking and eating cities that stand out from amongst the rest. Please make nominations for your favorites in the comments.

· All Spain Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cocktail Week Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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