As the weather warms, we are getting close to what some people like to call "G&T weather." Now, most of the folks who use this phrase tend to wear Guccis with no socks and smug expressions, and are not, therefore, among the ranks of those whom I consider ideal drinking partners. Still, the fact remains that it is an excellent time to consider the merits of the gin and tonic. First, the gin. It is a highly distilled grain-based spirit that is flavored most strongly with juniper berries, but also with a wide array of botanicals that, depending on the distiller's recipe, can range from coriander and cardamom to dried lemon and Seville orange rinds. The first gin was made by a Dutch professor of medicine, who named his drink Essence of Genievre (the Dutch word for juniper) and promoted it as a diuretic. It became enormously popular in England after the Dutch Protestant William of Orange assumed the British throne and curbed imports from the Roman Catholic wine-making countries. He also promoted the local distillation of "Genever," which his subjects shortened to "gin." By the 18th century, as the empire expanded, so did gin consumption— in the North American Colonies the Quakers were known for imbibing gin after funerals. The gin and tonic is said to have been invented as a way for Englishmen in tropical colonies to get their daily dose of quinine, for 300 years the only effective treatment for malaria. (The required citrus wedge had the added benefit of fighting scurvy.) Winston Churchill, a devoted fan of gin, once said, "The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire." Well, maybe. The effective treatment of malaria requires several daily doses of as much as 350 milligrams of quinine, and today's tonic water supplies only about 20 milligrams.
Still, one can never be too careful. I live in a tropical climate myself—New Orleans—where mosquitoes are extremely plentiful and epidemics of malaria are not an entirely distant memory. So I look forward to the seasonal switch of Scotch on the rocks to gin and tonics, as have many others before me. In Padgett Powell's lovely novel "Edisto Revisited," the main character is partial to the warm-weather combination of gin and tonics with salty country ham. Hemingway was partial to all things alcoholic, but in "Islands in the Stream," he has his alter ego Tom expound on the virtues of a gin and tonic in a way that only a slightly obsessive drinker can. When the barkeep asks, "Do you really like the taste of that stuff?" Tom says, "I like the quinine taste with the lime peel. I think it sort of opens up the pores of the stomach or something. I get more of a kick from it than any other gin drink."
When Doris Lessing became the second oldest Nobel Prize winner in literature, the London Times reported that she celebrated with a gin and tonic, and that was in October. The rest of us partake primarily in the summer, when many other gin cocktails are also frequently on offer. Among the most popular is the Tom Collins, made with gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup. When FDR's cousin entertained the visiting Churchill by serving him one, he spat it out. I imagine it was the sugar—she would have fared better, perhaps, with a gin rickey, made with gin, lime juice and club soda. My father built his business by bombing around the Mississippi Delta with a thermos full of gin rickeys in his car. In 98-degree weather, an icy rickey greatly eased his ability to sell grain bins to farmers.
Last year I invented a cocktail much like a rickey, but I add a bit of sugar and fresh mint to the lime juice and replaced the club soda with champagne. It is especially good with the relatively new Hendrick's gin, flavored with a hint of rose petals and cucumber. If I do say so myself, it is delicious—and packs a powerful punch. As it combines two of Churchill's very favorite elixirs, gin and champagne (in his case Pol Roger), I bet he would have swallowed it.