Once the weather warms up and the patios at local bars start to fill, the drinks start to run clear. And of all the clear spirits, gin tends to be the one that spikes hard during hot weather. It's no wonder – the light-bodied spirit flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals pairs amazingly well with citrus and plays the starring role in a huge number of crisp and refreshing cocktails. As the liquor that got us through prohibition, produced in bathtubs across the country during those dark years, we owe gin a far greater debt than can ever be repaid.
Gin comes in a variety of styles – from London Dry Gin to Old Tom Gin, which is lightly sweetened and rarely available since its popularity tanked in the 19th century. And yes, gin has really been around that long. By the 11th century, monks were using juniper berries to flavor distilled spirits. But gin in a recognizable form wasn't produced until the 17th century in England and was named for either the French or Dutch words for juniper. No one is really sure on that count. In the end, it doesn't matter much, because for most people's money, gin didn't really come into its own until some mad, thirsty genius paired it with tonic.
With gin's role in the martini far eclipsed by vodka at this point, the gin and tonic is the ultimate expression of the spirit. Invented by British soldiers stationed in tropical climates in the 1700s to mask the bitter flavor of the tonic water they drank to ward off malaria, the bitter quinine in tonic water and herbal, almost green notes of the gin are the perfect complement. It's the perfect drink to sip in the sun whether prepping burgers on the grill, killing time before a ball game, or hitting happy hour on a patio. Brightened by a little lime, not only does the drink ward off scurvy and deadly mosquito-borne illness, it tastes like liquid summer.
Gin and tonics are a simple drink, with just three ingredients – making it a good litmus test for the quality of any gin. So picking the right gin to pair with your tonic can be a tall order. There are literally hundreds of different gins on the market, many claiming deep cultural heritage and tradition, and others just selling on the strength of their ridiculously cheap price points and shatterproof plastic bottles. Some gins are distilled in the traditional manner – starting as grain alcohol and going through a second distillation with the juniper berries and botanicals used as flavoring. Cheaper “compound gins” don't go through this second distillation and are just flavored with botanical essences. These can be worthwhile, especially with their lower prices, but the flavors aren't as developed or balanced as a general rule. Below are some of the best on the market in a variety of styles.
Plymouth Gin – If it was good enough for legendary leader and lush Winston Churchill, it's good enough for anyone’s glass. With the piney juniper notes layered on top of complex lemon, orange and even coriander notes, this is a smooth liquor. Distilled since 1793, it's a great starter gin, pairing seamlessly with a good tonic and a healthy squeeze of lime.
Bulldog Gin – One of the most intriguing gins on the market today, Bulldog is quadruple distilled in London and flavored with the usual juniper berries and traditional botanicals, but the list goes on from there. Dragon eye, poppy, coriander, almond, licorice, cassia, lemon, angelica, and a slew of herbs and spices that rival KFC's list are in the mix as well. Amazingly smooth and balanced, the dog pile of flavors somehow work in combination, delivering an herbal tone that shines through tonic and lime for one hell of a drink. Plus, it's a great gin to have on a home bar – it comes in a badass bottle.
Right Gin – A good choice for anyone a little bored with their G&T, Right twists traditional gin by using all the usual botanicals, and then tossing black pepper into the mix. It sounds strange, but the added spice does amazing things to gin and tonics, the spice bringing out the best in the lime and blunting the astringency of the tonic.
Beefeater Summer Edition – A limited edition bottling from Beefeater due out in June that builds on gin's hot weather reputation. Beefeater is traditionally heavy on the juniper but the distiller lightened this bottling by adding elderflower, black currant and hibiscus flower. It's slightly sweet and almost reminiscent of Old Tom-style gins, but without the syrupy qualities of some sweetened varieties. It's a great variation for the summer and lends itself well to simple cocktails. In a gin and tonic it mellows out the bitterness of the tonic well, but too much lime can overwhelm this lighter gin. Plus, once they're available, ordering a Summer Edition gin and tonic will be a solid icebreaker on a date, because it never hurts to bring flowers to a potential love interest. Especially 80 proof flowers.