3 Richmond bartenders on gin and tonica
Originally published in Richmond Magazine.
What can be said about gin and tonic that hasn’t already been said?
Every bar with liquor can make you a G&T. Some even have it on a soda gun (ick!) or housemade on draft (yum!). Technically gin and tonic is a highball—but it’s so iconic it should really stand on its own.
And our bevy of creative RVA bartenders have a lot to say on the subject.
But first, a nod to history:
Like many classic drinks and ingredients, the gin and tonic started as medicine. Quinine—the ingredient that gives tonic its cutting bitterness and lingering flavor—has been used for centuries for treating and preventing malaria.
Derived from the bark of a South American shrub called cinchona, quinine spread to Europe during the age of exploration and became a vital import for empires hoping to expand and colonize the tropics.
Until 1820 quinine came in the form of dried cinchona bark ground fine and mixed with liquid—but isolating the extract made it deliverable intravenously for emergency treatment. And easier to digest for more effective prophylaxis.
But quinine is intensely bitter. So clever British expeditionaries cut it with gin and sugar and topped it with soda water to help it go down better in the tropical heat. Why shouldn’t medicine be a treat?
And while they were at it, since they had to eat all those limes to stave off scurvy—why not squeeze one or two in there as well?
Oh you didn’t know that’s why the British nickname is “Limey”?
Well you’re welcome.
Gin & tonic recipes in Richmond
At Virago Spirits they make their own gin. Head bartender Raine Castle serves it with Navy Hill tonic (another local product) garnished with rosemary and sage to match the spice and earthiness of the oolong-laced gin distilled right here in Scott’s Addition by brothers Barry and Brad Haneberg.
Belly up and sip the fragrant G&T, gazing through the window behind the bar at the big candyapple red Cognac pot-still cooking up the next batch—one of only five like it operating in the States. Direct fire heating spots on the copper belly delivers a Maillard reaction to the distillate, giving the gin a brusque and crisp mouthfeel that goes great with the smooth, mild tonic.
Hotel Greene is a cool new bar set in turn-of-the-(last)-century eastern Europe. In the small quirky corner across from the big muntined picture windows, bar manager Phil Boyle batches his housemade tonic with macerated cinchona bark, lemongrass, and other botanicals, rounding it off with demerara sugar and orange peel.
The hearty amber tonic goes best with citrus-ready london dry gins—of which he has a few. His program is only a few months old but already he’s imagining ways to tweak recipe variations to pair with specific gins—and offer a unique G&T flight. Replete with relevant garnishes and charming backstories documented in their Instagram.
For now though we’ll have to be content with his G&T cart service in the exquisitely rendered hotel lobby serving as antechamber to a whimsical minigolf course.
Welcome to the 1920s.
On the other side of space and time, Brian Artis, wine director at Can Can Brasserie, taps into the floral side of G&T with this jazzy variation he calls the Cactus Blossom, in honor of his daughter who frequently travels to Japan—where Roku gin is made.
He splits the gin with Caperitif, a South African aromatized wine bittered with cinchona—and highlights the tonic with grapefruit juice cut with tangy bright pomegranate. It comes out dusky pink in a tall frosty glass topped with an electric-green lime twist. Floral and refreshing but rich and light. An endearing ode to spring and daughterly spirit.
1 oz Roku gin
1 oz Caperitif
1 oz grapefruit juice
.5 oz pomegranate juice
Directions: Mix ingredients in a collins glass. Add ice. Top with tonic. Garnish with lime peel.