Everyone has a go-to drink for weddings, work events, fundraisers—any place there’s a party bar stocked with well spirits. My mom’s was gin and tonic. She hated gin, so one would last all night. I tried that trick years ago, but it didn’t work for me. I like gin’s juniper bite and the bitter-sweet tonic bubbling over my tongue. The drink is refreshing and delicious, and there’s no chance it can go wrong. Even the most makeshift bars have either Schweppes or Canada Dry tonic, and both deliver exactly what you’d expect.
Mixing at home’s another matter, though. I like playing with different gins, but they all taste pretty much the same after you mix them with one of those two tonic brands. That’s why Ryan Maybee of the soon-to-reopen Manifesto, Chris Conatser at Justus Drugstore, Café Europa’s Susan Avery and other bartenders make their own tonic water. Scott Benjamin at 4 Olives Wine Bar in Manhattan, Kansas, actually makes enough house tonic water to keep it on the menu (see my Oct. 6 Kansas City Star article for more on that). There are plenty of recipes on the Internet to get you started if you want to make it. Me, I went shopping.
I found six brands of tonic water in Kansas City and Lawrence supermarkets, lined them up and commenced tasting. Here’s the take-away:
Stirrings: My favorite of the bunch. Dry, clean and well-balanced. A bright tonic that works well with most gins. Made with cane sugar and contains 12 grams of sugar per serving, according to the nutritional label. That comes out to 1.9 grams of sugar per ounce. $5.39 for four 6.3-ounce bottles.
Q Tonic: Pale yellow, almost the color of watered-down ginger ale. Nicely effervescent, prickly at first, then rounding into something dry, clean and herbaceous. Made with agave and contains only 1.1 grams of sugar per ounce. Surprisingly tasty solo, nice with vodka, harder to match with gin because of its distinctive character. A bartender favorite. About $8 for four 6.3-ounce bottles.
Canada Dry and Schweppes: Bar staples that have defined the gin and tonic. Soda pop bubbles, slight bitterness, overall a sweet mixer. Both are made with high fructose corn syrup, and you can taste it. CD has 2.9 grams of sugar per ounce; Schweppes has 2.7 grams. About $5.49 for six 10-ounce bottles.
365: Whole Foods’ house brand of tonic is sweet and nice enough, but uneventful. Made with cane sugar. 3 grams of sugar per ounce. Didn’t write down the price.
Hansen’s: sweet, soft and bland. Made with HFCS. 3 grams of sugar per ounce. Ditto on price.