Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jul 22, 2011
04:14 PMSmall Dishes
Summer: Drink It Up!
It’s time to put away the dark whiskey, martini glasses and olives. Instead, bring out the ice and lots of it. It’s hard to imagine summer without a margarita, mojito or caipirinha at some point; not to mention a gin and tonic.
Gin and tonic is the classic summer libation. Like most good things, it has a history. Tonic water made with quinine was originally serious medicine, drunk in India by the British to ward off malaria. Some smart person figured out that adding gin masked the bitter quinine and made this remedy downright enjoyable. The Brits brought their taste for gin and tonic back home with them. Tonic water there is still called “India Tonic”, and when mixed with gin, affectionately referred to as a “gin and IT”. Not surprisingly, an English gin and tonic is much more reserved than its American cousin. There the cocktail is traditionally made in what resembles a wine glass with little or no ice and garnished with a slice of lemon.
In the States, gin was ubiquitous during prohibition because it was easy to make and needed no aging. Despite the deservedly bad reputation of bathtub gin, following booze’s re-legalization, the taste for gin remained popular; in part due to the growing trendiness of the martini. The advent and proliferation of modern refrigeration—allowing bars and homes to make their own cheap ice—grew the demand for gin mixed with tonic water as a summer cooler.
In this country from the start, gin and tonic was a highball—a drink made with lots of ice in a tall glass. Limes replaced lemons as a much more successful garnish and flavor enhancer. One of the reasons gin combined with tonic water is such a successful combination is—just like the vermouth in a martini—the quinine enhances the botanical flavors imbued in gin’s alcohol base.
Alas, today many bars have replaced tall glasses with a large, one-size-fits-all old fashioned glass. The problem is, to make a perfect gin and tonic you need lots of ice and about twice as much tonic water as gin—a 5-ounce to 2-ounce ratio approximately. When served in a rocks glass, what you get is a concoction of about half gin and half tonic—and inevitably out of a soda gun!
This brings me to another point of contention: the quality of tonic water. The Schweppes brand originated in England and is today found the world over. It makes an adequate gin and tonic—certainly better than what’s too often mechanically dispensed at too many drinking establishments. However, the formula has changed many times over the years—British Schweppes isn’t even the same as the U.S. product! There’s very little quinine in any of these beverages today.
Fortunately, artisan tonic water has arrived to save the day. My favorite is Q Tonic (and many thanks to the friend who turned me on to this great find!). Prior to World War II, quinine became just a flavoring in tonic water. Nearly all of it came from Indonesia. When the Japanese cut off the supply to the rest of the world during the war, scientists figured out how to synthesize quinine in the laboratory. This cheaper synthetic ingredient is most often used in making tonic water today. Q, however uses all natural ingredients—genuine quinine from Peru and organic agave as a sweetener. The result is a superior tasting mixer that coincidentally has 60% fewer calories than regular tonic water. It comes packaged in both small (which I prefer—nothing’s worse than flat tonic!) and large bottles. Locally, you’ll find it at Metcalfe’s, Woodman’s West, Steve’s and other places around town.
Obviously, there’s an almost endless and ever growing list of cocktails perfect for summer sipping. Here’s but a sampling of what I recommend about town.
Merchant. Ever since going to Hawaii, I’ve had a fondness for the Mai Tai. They actually originated (like so many faux Polynesian things) at the first Trader Vic’s in Berkeley, California (recipe follows). I’m inevitably courting disaster if I dare order one at most bars—the color alone can be frightening. Fortunately, Merchant’s version is the genuine article made from quality rum, homemade orange curacao, fresh lime juice—and the too often overlooked but essential ingredient—orgeat syrup.
Samba Brazilian Grill and Cabana Room. For too long, about the only place you’d find a caipirinha outside of Brazil—where it’s the national drink—was southern Florida. That was because it’s main ingredient, cachaça—a type of rum distilled from the juice of the sugar cane, was unknown here. As with margaritas, the original flavoring was lime, but today it can likewise include about any fruit under the sun. Samba carries seven different brands of cachaça and makes an exemplary caipirinha.
Capitol Chophouse. Mary Ward can mix about any drink as good as or better than you’ll get anywhere else in town. It’s difficult for me to make a suggestion, but for something refreshingly different, have her whip up an Italian 75: A tall drink concocted with gin, Campari, Orangecello and Pellegrino Aranciata. If the color doesn’t sway you, the taste will.
Eldorado Grill. I can’t imagine coming here and not having a margarita but the choices are so many! They’re all good, but I love the 100% Agave Rita made with house tequila, fresh lime juice and agave syrup. For the additional charge, it’s worth substituting one of Eldorado’s many reserve or top shelf tequilas.
Liliana’s . No city is more associated with imbibing that New Orleans—how do you think it got nickname’s like “The City that Care Forgot” and the “Big Easy”? If there’s one drink synonymous with this town it’s the Hurricane. Fortunately, you needn’t travel any further than Fitchburg to delight in one at Liliana’s. Granted, everything’s just wrong about a Hurricane: It’s over-the-top fruity, very sweet, and packs an alcoholic punch. But then again, that’s why it’s all the more satisfying on a hot, muggy New Orleansesque day.
Cardinal Bar. It’s a no brainer that at a place owned by a native Cuban (Ricardo Gonzalez) would make an authentic and outstanding mojito. Enjoying it while seated at the old long bar and I might convince myself I’ve died and gone to Havana. Now, if I could only conjure up a real bottle of Havana Club.
Trader Vic’s Mai Tai
1 ounce light rum
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce orange curacao
1 splash grenadine
1 splash orgeat
Shake all the ingredients with cracked ice and strain into a chilled wine goblet or Collins glass filled with ice. Top with ½ an additional ounce dark rum if desired. Garnish with a paper umbrella or a cherry and flower blossom.
Makes 1 drink.