‘There’s been loads in the media saying that if you like gin you might be a psychopath, because psychopaths like bitter flavours. What do you make of that? AND ARE YOU A PSYCHOPATH?’ I am interviewing gin expert David T Smith in a calm and reasonable manner, despite the fact that I might be talking to the drink industry’s Hannibal Lecter. ‘I think that was a bit of fun,’ says Smith laughing, almost as if he’s not about to wallpaper his house with my skin. He admits the studies ruffled a few feathers in his field, but puts it into perspective for me, explaining, ‘It’s like the first time you try olives. Most people don’t like them, then gradually they’re like, “Oh, I quite like them!”. I don’t think you can become a gradual psychopath,’ he assures me.
I’m glad we’ve cleared this up, partly because I like a gin myself. Although it’s been a bit marred for me since a nutritionist told me to try it with soda water, decrying tonic as a sugar bomb. It was vile, I tell Smith. Should I accept that soda water’s not for me, or is there anything I can do to make it more tolerable? Smith suggests trying a combination of soda water and tonic water, and choosing a sweeter garnish such as orange or lemon, rather than lime. ‘Add sweetness via the fruit, as opposed to the tonic,’ he says. Smith also recommends trying Bombay Sapphire East (‘a more peppery version of the original’), Martin Miller’s Gin which ‘has a cucumber element to it’, or 1897 Quinine Gin. He explains, ‘They work particularly well with soda and sparkling water, as there aren’t other flavours battling with the botanicals.’
If I do want to treat myself to something sweet, and ‘marginally controversial’, Smith suggests I mix my gin with coke. ‘It’s popular in Africa, and it’s not a new idea either – I’ve seen it mentioned in recipe books as far back as the 1930s.’ Really? ‘Yes, because the botanical flavours in coke work well with the botanicals in gin – it adds so much to the flavour. Even Fever Tree have brought out their own cola.’ Smith tells me coke works especially well with ‘something punchy like Tanqueray and also something more elegant, like Bombay Sapphire’, as well as Shortcross and a cherry gin by That Boutique-y Gin Company.
But while Smith advocates soda, sparkling water and coke as options, the classic mixer is, of course, tonic. ‘I think certain pairings can be magnificent,’ he declares, recommending Herno Old Tom Gin with a tonic called 1724. ‘It has a slightly herbaceous element that works nicely with the slightly sweeter element of the Herno,’ adds Smith, who also suggests the cranberry tonic from Double Dutch as a mixer for some of the spicier gins such as Portobello Road and Darnley’s Spiced Gin, explaining that ‘the cranberry works well with the autumnal flavours.’
Here are some of Smith’s other tips for drinking gin and tonic…
For the best G&T just do A, B, C…
‘I’m keen for people to make better gin and tonics,’ says Smith, who promises, ‘you could have the cheapest gin, and the cheapest tonic, but following a few tips will improve it significantly.’ Excellent – what do I do? ‘So, ice first, because it starts to cool the glass. Then pour gin over the ice, and add the tonic. Never add the gin last, because it floats on top, so the first mouthful is really strong gin, and the rest isn’t very ginny.’ OK. ‘And keep your tonic cold,’ adds Smith, ‘even if you have to quickly chill it in an ice bucket.’ I keep mine in the fridge, I tell Smith, feeling chuffed when he declares, ‘The fridge is a fantastic place to keep it.’ Smith recommends using lots of ice, ‘The more the better – one ice-cube is the worst thing you can do if you don’t want a watery drink!’ However, he points out that even if you do use lots of ice you still need to chill your tonic first, ‘otherwise it won’t have that fizz, and it’ll be that bit sweeter.’
Go hard or go high
I love a G&T in the air, with a miniature bottle of Gordon’s courtesy of BA, and afterwards I find myself buying a big bottle of Gordon’s to try and replicate it. But faced with shelves full of artisan gin from hipster distilleries, I can’t help worrying that Gordon’s is a bit, well, naff. I turn to Smith for permission to buy it. ‘I think it’s a great gin,’ Smith assures me, ‘particularly on a plane!’ Smith has tried a few and thinks Gordon’s works particularly well. He points out, however, that Gordon’s on a flight is slightly stronger, at 40% instead of the usual 37.5%. ‘This works brilliantly on a flight because your taste buds change due to the altitude – the higher alcohol content helps you taste it more.’ Smith adds that America sells Gordon’s at 47.3%. ‘When the alcohol content changes, the flavour changes as well, because as you dilute it, you’re not just diluting the alcohol, but the flavour too.’ He adds, ‘That stronger flavour works really well with Gordon’s.’
Don’t fight the fish bowl
I like my gin in a nice crystal tumbler, I tell Smith, but everywhere’s serving it up in fishbowls. What does he make of that? ‘I like it,’ says Smith, who tells me he’s written a book on the fishbowl style, aka ‘gin tonica’. ‘It originated in the Basque Country where chefs were making it in kitchens. It was hot, that’s why there’s so much ice, and they had all these fresh ingredients – I think that’s why they were so adventurous with garnishes.’ I tell Smith there was a gin tonica menu at a tapas place I went to recently. Are you meant to drink them with food? ‘I think you can definitely drink them with food. That style came from the kitchen, so that makes total sense to me. Look at the garnishes – you can see how they might work with food as well.’ While Smith is a fan of the gin tonica’s ‘attention to detail and element of theatre’, he tells me that if he’s at home he’ll use a tumbler or a small wine glass. ‘That’s kind of gone out of fashion but people used to do that a lot – because it’s stemmed, your hand isn’t on the glass, so it’ll stay colder longer.’ However, the tumbler works a treat, ‘if you want something you can cradle in your hand, that’ll melt a bit quicker.’
It’s gin o’clock round the clock!
Is there a particular time to drink a G&T? I ask, picturing people in white linen drinking it on the veranda before dinner. ‘It’s traditionally been a pre-dinner drink because it stimulates the appetite, but you can drink it at any time – it’s a nice choice for a lazy afternoon,’ says Smith, adding, ‘any time you fancy one is the right time to have one!’ Would you have one after dinner? ‘Oh, yes. If you want it after dinner, have it after dinner,’ says Smith who suggests adjusting the measure to the time of day. ‘You might find that earlier you want to have a lighter, more elegant G&T with more tonic in it, because you tend to knock back your first drink of the evening quite quickly, whereas after dinner, you might have a stronger one, in a shorter glass.’
Warm your cockles with gin, whatever the weather
Smith intrigues me when he tells me hot gin and tonic is a thing. ‘Pour tonic into a large mug and microwave it for 60 seconds, then add the gin and squeeze in a lemon wedge, before dropping it into the mug, and sprinkling grated nutmeg on top.’ He points out, however, that it won’t be especially fizzy and he prefers to take the winter months as an opportunity to drink the spicier gins, such as Sacred’s Christmas Pudding Gin, Portobello Road and Darnley’s View Spiced Gin. ‘Have them with tonic, or ginger ale, which is light and refreshing, and adds a gingery note. Make sure it’s ginger ale, rather than ginger beer, because beer’s more fiery and intense.’ Garnishes are also a way to warm it up. Smith suggests blackberries, cranberries, and ‘even a bit of root ginger for spice’. He adds, ‘When we had Christmas Pudding Gin, I stuck raisins, sultanas and dried cranberries on a cocktail stick and put that in there as a garnish. Because they’re dry, they have an intensity of flavour that works very nicely.’
David T Smith is the author of The Gin Dictionary which will be published by Mitchell Beasley on April 5
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