Friday, 24 June 2011

Anyone for tonic?

Heather D ponders the appeal of quintessential summer drinks.

Is it Pimm's o'clock yet? Truth be told I don't care overmuch for the over-priced, gin-based drink, but I have immense respect for the marketing. Pimm's has so inveigled its way into our notion of the English summer that it feels as though the season hasn't properly started until you've downed your first pint of it. And with the accompanying cucumber, strawberry, mint leaves and such, it must include at least two of your five a day, surely?

But once we've got our obligatory glass of Pimm's out of the way, it's time to ponder which drinks offer just the right note of refreshment and a little celebration of summer.

Top of any list has to be a really good gin and tonic. The best G&T I've ever had was at the cocktail bar of Orient Express-styled, English/Russian restaurant Bob Bob Ricard in London. However, you'd need a cabinet full of specialist ingredients to reproduce it at home. Best to keep it simple and stick with quality gin and the best tonic. In fact simplicity is surely the key to the enduring popularity of G&T – how many of us would have the ingredients for and inclination to throw together a Cosmopolitan or a Harvey Wallbanger when we get in from work? A bottle of gin, some tonic, ice and either a lemon or lime – that'll work.

Big bottles of tonic are fine if you use them up the same day, but there's nothing like a slightly flat tonic for ruining your G&T. For perfect freshness, small bottles or little cans are the solution and, if you want to drink the best, then get hold of Fevertree tonic (£3.05 for four 200ml bottles from Waitrose and Tesco). Tasting this alongside Schweppes can be compared to watching a film in the cinema versus on your TV screen at home. The Fevertree has an extra dimension and great depth of flavour which will turn a simple drink into a cocktail.

The gin: whatever I say here, I'm going to get into trouble, as people can develop fierce loyalties which are not to be challenged. I will simply offer my own opinion, for what it's worth, make of it what you will.

My personal favourite is Tanqueray, which is from the same stable as market leader Gordon's and can be likened to the same gin, with the volume turned up. One of the key differences is that the alcohol level is higher – but it's not just that a stronger gin makes a better drink. Gin is really all about the various flavourings, known as botanicals, most notably juniper berries, but which can also include exotics such as coriander seeds, citrus peel, angelica and orris root. The exact mix of botanicals which each distiller infuses into the gin during its second distillation will influence the flavour profile of the final drink. The more botanicals used, the greater the complexity of flavour – but higher alcohol allows a greater range of the aromatics produced to be expressed in the gin. So a higher alcohol gin is a more high definition experience, to continue the television analogy.

Tanqueray (£20.49 recommended retail price) is,for me, the archetypal London Dry Gin: dry, with bright, citrus and herbal-medicinal layers of flavour which evolve and linger on the palate.

London Dry Gin, incidentally, is not necessarily distilled in the capital. Practically all the gins we see on supermarket and wine merchant shelves will say “London Dry”, but they can, in fact, be distilled anywhere. This may change in the future, but for now the term denotes a style of gin, rather than anything about its origin.

The water used to make any spirit is going to have an influence on its flavour. You only have to try a cup of tea in another part of the country to know that water is not really neutral at all and can be surprisingly variable in flavour. If you would like to explore the influence of water on gin, then look for a bottle of Plymouth Gin, made in, yes, Plymouth using the soft water of Dartmoor. This results in a softer, smoother gin than the London Dry – but importantly Plymouth (£17 recommended retail price) is also a higher strength spirit, allowing the seven botanicals used to shine.

But man cannot live by gin alone. Or probably shouldn't. If you tire of the grassy, citrussy kick of the G&T, who are the new pretenders, hoping to become the hit summer drink of 2011?

Croft Pink Port is a pretender to the summertime drinking crown. Port is making a play for a new, younger (not to say female) market rather than aged, pass the port to the right gentlemen's club frequenting, cigar-smoking oldies. The ladies have shown their fondness for all things pink, so why not a pink port?

They have cleverly overcome the potential problem of any fortified wine, which is naturally high in alcohol, by suggesting the use of port as a mixer. Why not try whipping up one of these at home?

Bubbles & Pink

9cl chilled Croft Pink
12cl Prosecco or Champagne
1.5cl Cointreau
Dash of bitters

Pour into a Champagne flute and garnish with a lemon twist

Croft Pink is available from Sainsbury, Morrison's and the Co-operative for £10.72 a bottle.

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