Sam Ng of Four Pillars in Healesville gives us a masterclass on crafting the ultimate G&T.
Listen to your palate
A big part of it is the enjoyment someone has when they drink a particular drink, as everybody’s palate is going to be a little different. I think the biggest thing to consider is what you like to drink. Do you like to drink things that are a bit sweet, a bit more floral, a bit bitter? Considering that, choose your gin to match what you enjoy drinking. For instance, you might like that citrusy big round Mediterranean/Asian flavour [found in] Four Pillars gin.
Pay attention to botanicals
You need to match your gin with your tonic, and then match the garnishes to the gin and tonic. How is it going to be on the palate? Are your flavours going to be contradictory, or complementary? You could choose a garnish that would be completely juxtaposing the flavour of the gin, and you might really enjoy that; or you could find one that’s very complementary. Given orange is something that we use in the making of our gin, we’ll often garnish with oranges [for the flavours to be complementary].
If you drink something like Bombay Sapphire, which is a more classic-style gin, the juniper presence is much stronger. Everyone has it with lime, but I actually think it’s significantly better with lemon. That particular citrus matches the botanicals that are in Bombay Sapphire itself.
So you look at the gin. Four Pillars is a modern style of gin, so the botanicals are a bit different, but you look at something very classic like Gordon’s or Beefeater, or I guess more modern classics like Bombay Sapphire, and the ingredients they use, and the style and the method with which they’re producing the gin, generally lean towards really classic flavours like lemon, which suits really well as opposed to something super wacky. You’re not going to put something like eggplant into Bombay Sapphire as a garnish, for instance, because there’s no reason for those flavours to be there. They’re not complementary in any way. Even as a contradictory flavour, it’s just too much.
Choose your garnish
I think that people default to lime because they think that lime is the great equaliser. You know, people drink vodka, lime and sodas. Gin and tonic with lime. But actually, the flavour in lime skin is quite tannic, and it’s a bit bitter. Even though it’s really robust and it’s a sweet, fleshy fruit, the actual lime oils are quite aggressive.
The citrus flavours in lemon and grapefruit are quite different in the way that they [hit] your palate. So as I say, we use oranges in our rare dry gin distillation but also our garnish. But we’re quite happy to put pink grapefruit into a lot of our garnishes and a lot of our gin because it’s a soft, delicate citrus. The lemon works pretty well across the board. But if you look at our Spiced Negroni Gin, we use pink grapefruit to accompany that, because it’s softer and the gin itself is very broad and dynamic on the palate. So if you put a big, intense garnish with it, you almost blow yourself out of the flavour game and make it too much.
Choose your tonic
At Four Pillars, we do a lot of work with Fever Tree, because they are the number one craft tonic in the world and their stuff is sensational. But there are people that like a classic taste, which means using tonic that is high in quinine. So companies like Kirks and Schweppes suit some gins better than other gins. The classic London drys suit those tonic waters because both the flavours are robust.
The Mediterranean Fever Tree perfectly suits our rare dry gin because the flavours in our rare dry aren’t aggressive. They’re present and they’re strong, but they aren’t really raw or rough. The Mediterranean tonic has got less quinine and needs less sugar, which means that it’s light on the palate and the finish of the gin and tonic is much cleaner than it might be with a high sugar, high juniper gin.
If you look at the back of soda bottles, the labels give you the breakdown of how much sugar is in the product. Coca Cola’s about 16.3 grams of sugar in it per 100 millilitres. Schweppes and Kirks are up there at about 15.6, 15.7 grams, and Fever Tree is about 10 grams. This will relate to how much quinine is in the tonic water. The more quinine you put in, the more sugar you need to put in, because you have to balance out the sweet and the bitter.
Don’t underestimate the power of a good ice cube
Using good quality ice is one of the most important things when making a gin and tonic, meaning good quality water has been used to make the ice cubes, and the ice hasn’t been shattered down like a Slurpee.
The smaller the chunks of ice, the more surface area there is to interact. The biggest enemy of a great gin and tonic is people can over dilute the gin, leaving it sitting on water for too long. The ice cubes make a huge difference. When you go to a good bar, they have huge ice cubes and the cubes are clear. One of the best gin and tonics you’ll get is from the Everleigh in Melbourne, the main reason being that the ice cubes they use are absolutely clear. There’s no impurities in that block. So what you’re tasting does not change with impurities as the ice goes through the dilution stages.
To make your ice cubes at home, boil your water first to get rid of impurities, and then make your ice in a large format. You can go buy those plastic two-inch moulds, or just get a Tupperware container, pour the water into that, stick it into the freezer, and when you take it out, use a heavy spoon to break it into big, jagged chunks. Then you get big blocks of jagged ice, it looks cool, and it’s cheap.
Making the drink
Don’t drown it in tonic. One of the secrets, like anything, is balance. Once you’ve figured out what kind of gin to tonic ratio you like, stick with that. I generally tell people to start with two and a half to three parts tonic, to one part gin, so around 30 millilitres of gin to 100 millilitres of tonic water.
If you’re going to have a 3:1 ratio, choose a middle-sized glass; if you’re going to have it 2:1, choose a very short glass.
Having less tonic means that there’s more time for the drink to open up. When you’re not drowning it in tonic, you’re not washing those flavours away. You can still taste the gin, you can taste the tonic, and you’ve got good quality ice, which will stay on an undiluted level for a while.
To prepare the drink, start with the gin, then pour in your tonic, and then put the ice in afterwards. If you pour your gin over ice cubes, you’re diluting the gin because the gin is warmer then the ice. Likewise, if you pour tonic over the ice cubes, you’re creating more surface area for those bubbles to bubble up so the carbonation is lost.
For a citrus garnish, cut a nice little wedge and squeeze it in so that you get the full amount of juice in there and it has the full effect.