The lavender gin and tonic came out of my first foray into the world of home made tonic water and was the most successful of the initial four variants I produced. Force carbonated, it is extremely fizzy, in a way a regular G&T never is because the gin gets carbonated as well as the tonic and you can really amp up the pressure if you so wish. Also, as you control the sugar level, it doesn’t have to be cloyingly sweet and the finished drink is crisper and drier than anything made with the commercially ubiquitous Schweppes…
After reading Dave Arnold’s book Liquid Intelligence, I knew I had to make my own tonic water and that the murky brown stuff made from cinchona bark and hours of filtering wasn’t going to cut it. When I then read about some craft bartenders apparently poisoning people with their cinchona-laced crapshoots, it became even more appealing. But this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Dave Arnold’s method requires pure quinine sulfate USP, which isn’t easily available if you don’t happen to have a white coat and a good reason. It would be easy enough to get a white coat but apparently a superior G&T doesn’t qualify as a good reason…
Fortunately, after praying to the Cocktail Gods and scanning the internet for several eternities, a well-connected friend suggested a method for procuring the required food grade quinine sulfate and getting it safely into our hands. Bingo! In an effort to protect the guilty, I can’t go into details here.
The great things about quinine sulphate, unlike cinchona preparations, is that it gives you crystal clear tonic water and as long as you have the proper equipment to measure and dispense it, you can work out exactly how much ends up in the final drink. The less great things about quinine sulfate are that you can still poison people if you screw it up and it’s not a very cooperative substance to work with.
You need just half a gram to make 7 litres of finished tonic water and keep it within the 83 milligrams per litre limit mandated by US law (Dave Arnold’s recipe weighs in at 0.069g of quinine per litre of tonic). Quinine sulfate is super fine and loves to clump together, so measuring exactly half a gram is quite a performance… You need a scale accurate to three decimal places which has been properly calibrated as well as a static-free measuring boat, so what you measure out is what ends up in the mix because this stuff LOVES to stick to anything and everything. You also need a breeze free environment because you don’t want it airborne and even air movements can be enough to move the ultra sensitive scale.
You also need the patience of a saint because the chance that you will spoon exactly 0.500g onto that scale first time is exactly zero. Eventually, at some point you’ll make it and can breath a sigh of relief – but not a heavy one and certainly not in the direction of the scale…
Once you’ve measured it out properly and got it into your exactly one litre of exactly 50/50 sugar syrup in a Vitamix you can think about relaxing. But not really. Blend it. Blend it some more. Let it clear. Can you see any specks of Quinine Sulfate waiting to ambush you? Blend it again and then blend again for luck! Then strain it through fine mesh and check it visually again. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy paranoia if you’re going to get involved in this. The risk is extremely small if you take care – but you’ve got to take care.
An interesting bit of quinine poisoning trivia – quinine is apparently popular for cutting heroin as the bitter taste which is similar to heroin makes it hard for buyers to ascertain the quality while it reportedly increases the rush when injected. It seems many reported heroin overdose deaths may actually be attributable to quinine poisoning. Who knew?!
Once you have your quinine simple syrup you can mix up batches of straight tonic by carefully adding precisely measured amounts of water (buy Liquid Intelligence for the detailed recipe) and force carbonating with carbon dioxide using a carbonator cap and a Coke bottle or cut to the chase and make batched G&Ts ready for service.
After testing the tonic straight (crisp, not overly sweet and delicious) and in a plain G&T (crisp, not overly sweet, alcoholic and delicious) I decided to try a few flavoured versions. Splitting a litre of quinine simple syrup into four, I added a quartet of different flavours by infusing the simple syrup with the aromatics simply by throwing them into a freezer Zip Loc bag, squeezing out the air using the displacement method and throwing them in a water bath powered by my Nomiku (and as luck would have it, you can get $50 off the Classic Nomiku via the link by using the discount code moodtherapist) for half an hour at 52C.
The flavour combinations I tried were:
- Dried schisandra berries
- Green cardamom, Szechuan pepper and lime zest
- Orange zest and dried Clausena Indica skins (a type of Wampee fruit which is a cool local citroid I’ve previously used fresh to make a killer daiquiri – it’s very tart while coming in over 23 brix so you can use it to replace both the lime juice and the simple syrup in one fell swoop – genius!)
The results were mixed but certainly worthwhile. I went too heavy on the cardamom which overwhelmed the other notes in that batch. The orange zest and Clausena Indica was OK but a little too bitter because, I assume, it was just the skins and previously I had used only the fruit itself. The schisandara berries version was good but I need to play with the concentration and it didn’t store well, forming clouds of debris over the course of a week in the fridge. These three also weren’t perfectly clear and I didn’t fancy centrifuging them because I wasn’t sure what effect that might have on the quinine sulphate I had so studiously distributed evenly throughout the simple syrup. The clear winner (geddit?) was the lavender. It was also the one I was least enthusiastic about beforehand as it’s way to easy to be heavy-handed with lavender and who wants to drink a glass of fizzy grandma juice? Eeeeeewwwwwwww!
Fortunately my reticence saved me and it turned out that the single gram in 250ml of quinine simple syrup was perfect – definitely there but not overpowering. Paired with Martin Miller’s gin it made for an extremely refreshing celebration drink after rather a hard day at the cocktail mill.
With the benefit of time to reflect I think that rather than trying to flavour the tonic, next time I’ll keep the tonic pure and flavour the spirits instead. Infusions tend to be better and more stable into alcohol than simple syrup and there are less issues with clarity because it can always go for a spin in the centrifuge with out worrying about the possible effects on the quinine sulphate.
Remember: Quinine Sulfate is dangerous if not used properly. Buy a copy of Liquid Intelligence and read it several times for the full details and safety procedures before attempting to make your own tonic water. Make sure your equipment is up to the task and approach with a clear head. Check and check and check and check your work at every step.
Then prepare for the best G&T of your life!
Many thanks to Matthew Dakin for the great main photo!