The Dutch may have invented the gin (in its earlier form, genever), the British added the tonic, but it was the Spanish who perfected the garnish and elevated the drink to the level of art. Nowhere in the world can you find better gin and tonics than in bars in Spain.
I have loved G&Ts for a long time, but it only occurred to me that what I had to come to see as the 'right way' to serve a G&T was actually the 'Spanish way' when I went to a cocktail bar - Amor y Amargo - in New York that had 'Spanish-style' G&Ts on the menu.
As Cognac-Ferrand president Alexandre Gabriel, quoted in an article about gin and tonic, says: "Only Spain knows how to make a gin and tonic."
So what makes a Spanish gin and tonic so perfect?
The Perfect Gin and Tonic Recipe (Like They Do it In Spain)
- Take a large wine glass with a long stem.
- Fill it with ice. We're talking five or ten cubes here, depending on the size of your glass. A good G&T is COLD.
- Choose a garnish. The more imaginative the better (more on which garnish to pick further down the page).
- Pour the gin onto the garnish, so as to properly flavor the gin, followed by tonic poured from a freshly-opened bottle or can. Though tastes vary, you probably want a ratio of 2:1 or 3:2 (tonic to gin). This might be more than you're used to. See below on why the Spanish can make their G&Ts so strong and so tasty.
- Give it a light stir and hear the ice cubes jangle, add a straw and serve.
The Best Gin for Gin & Tonic
G&T needs a London gin - which is most gins in the world. Don't go near Gordon's, which is nowhere near the quality it was when James Bond would drink it. Avoid the subtle Plymouth, which is not a London gin (put that in your martini instead) or the back-in-production classic Old Tom gins (they're for your Tom Collins).
The standard premium gin in bars in Spain is Tanqueray which has a great fruity flavor and is pretty cheap. At home, the best drink is the one that can be easily followed by another one, so the excellent value of Tanqueray makes it my best gin for a gin and tonic.
If you want to drink a Spanish gin, go for the premium Larios 12, or the standard Larios if you need to save a bit of money.
Thankfully the Spanish haven't fallen for the marketing might of Bombay Sapphire, which tastes like perfume and is responsible for so many people saying they don't like gin.
What Is the Best Tonic Water for the Perfect Gin and Tonic?
Schweppes is the standard brand of tonic for a G&T, of course, but the Spanish obsess over Fever Tree, an all-natural tonic water from Britain. I compared the two brands both side-by-side at a bar in Malaga (the one mentioned below) and I have to say that in comparison to the Fever Tree, the Schweppes has a very synthetic aftertaste.
However, in isolation, it's not different enough to warrant making it my go-to tonic.
Remember: always use a freshly opened bottle of tonic for every drink! The freshness of the tonic is more important than the brand you use.
Why Do Bars Pour Their Tonic Down a Spoon?
Because it looks cool!
I was once in a bar in Spain where two bartenders disagreed on the effect that pouring the tonic down the spoon has on the drink. One said it was to preserve the bubbles, the other said it was to kill some of the bubbles!
The first bartender argued that there is no splashing as the tonic reaches the glass, whereas the second (and myself) pointed out how much the tonic is disturbed as it travels down the spoon.
Tonic poured down a spoon makes it look fizzier when the drink is presented to the drinker. But the more bubbly something looks, the quicker the drink will go flat.
Unfortunately, most bars in Spain do this. On the plus side, it doesn't affect your drink that much.
How to Pick Your Garnish for the Perfect Gin and Tonic
There are two ways to garnish a G&T - the classic way, and the Spanish way.
First, let's answer the classic question - lemon or lime in a gin and tonic?
There are two contradictory schools of thought here. It's all about the 'botanicals', the flavors in gin that differentiate it from vodka. Juniper is the main one, but lemon, cardamom, and cassia bark are among other frequently included flavors. So, there's lemon already there. Now, the question is: do you want to 'bring out' the lemon with more lemon, or complement the flavor by adding one that's not already present - in this case, lime?
There'll be some sciency-stuff that would prove one way or another whether you can 'bring out'flavors in this way, but we're not doing science here: this is art.
Ultimately, it's down to taste. So, if there is no right or wrong way to garnish your G&T, why stick with lemon or lime in the first place?
Enter the Spanish!
How the Spanish Garnish the Perfect Gin & Tonic
Ever since the marketing guys at Hendrick's thought of putting cucumber in their self-styled 'unusual' gin, the Spanish have been experimenting with G&T garnishes that aren't citrus fruits beginning with the letter 'l'. Any gin bar in Spain worth its juniper will offer you a variety of garnishes.
Gin is a varied beast, so why not vary your garnishes? Below are the garnishes I saw at San Telmo's in Barcelona. I chose this bar's selection because it had the most extensive list I've seen; that doesn't mean all their choices were good!
- Citrus fruits Lemon, lime, pink grapefruit, orange.
- Herbs and Spices Coriander, mint, cardamom, cinnamon, parsley, nutmeg, pepper, curry powder(!)
- Roots Ginger, licorice
- Berries Grapes, raspberries, juniper.
- Other Cucumber, chocolate.
A lot of bars in Spain try to match garnishes to particular gins. I think this is going a bit over the top. Experiment and find your favorite garnish for your favorite gin.
Another thing to bear in mind is that there are now many sweet gins in Spain now in Spain and it is with these gins that you might expect to see some of the more unusual garnishes. With the huge hype around gin and its crossover into mainstream bar culture in Spain, manufacturers are makings gins 'for people who don't like gin'. If you are in a good gin bar, you'll be able to guess what the gin is like from the garnish they use. If you can't imagine you'd like a gin with strawberries in it, don't order it. On the other hand, if your favorite drinks tend to have strawberries in them, maybe you'll like this G&T.
How Can the Spanish Make Their G&Ts So Strong?!
A Spanish bar will usually pour you between 70ml and 90ml of gin, using most of (or all of) a 200ml bottle of tonic to complete your drink. This is a ration of between 2:1 and 3:1. Try that in your average British pub and you'll get something that tastes largely of alcohol. The difference is so marked that I've heard people suggest that Spanish bars water down their gin. In fact, the reason is the complete opposite!
So how can Spanish bars make their gin and tonic so strong?
Our tastebuds have evolved to pick up bitter over anything else (because, in the wild, bitter often means poison). If you water down an alcoholic drink too much, it is the bitter flavor of alcohol that will shine through the most. (There is a good level of dilution required with drinks such as a dry martini, but in a long drink like a G&T the gin is already diluted with the tonic so there is no need for any more dilution.)
But it is not devious bar owners outside Spain that are diluting your G&T. The real culprit is the ice. This is why Spanish bars fill their oversized glasses with so many cubes: the more ice cubes, the slower it will melt. Slower melting means less water in your drink and so less bitterness coming through.
Where Can I Get a Good G&T in Spain?
Serving a G&T in a big glass with lots of ice and a nice garnish is fast becoming the norm in Spain (in fact, it's starting to spread around the rest of Europe too!). Look behind the bar for the oversized balon glasses and you know you've got an appropriate bar.
However, as I hope this article has shown you, there are still pitfalls to making a good G&T. Plus, there are bars in Spain that take the gin and tonic to an even more impressive level. Check out my favorites below.
1. Bobby Gin, Barcelona
Bobby Gin is the best bar in the world to drink a G&T in. Not only do they have an extensive range of gins, tonics and garnishes, but their gin and tonic cocktails are the next step in pimping your drink. My favorite was the one spiked with barrel-aged chartreuse and lime juice.
Address: Francisco Giner 47, Barcelona
2. Gin-Tonic, Malaga
The first place I had a gin and tonic made properly. What makes this bar stand out is the passion both the staff and the patrons have for gin and tonic - this bar is so renowned for its preparation of the drink that you'll find few people there drinking anything else.
They also have a machine that chills the glass with carbon dioxide - useful and cool looking!
Address: c/ Sancha de Lara 4, Malaga
See also: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Malaga
3. Martinez, Madrid
This is one of the few bars I've seen that dispenses with the silly and flamboyant pouring of the tonic down the spoon and the only bar I found carefully pouring their tonic on the back of a spoon, to reduce the splash of the tonic as it goes into the glass.
They also use their own house-made 'elixirs' (probably 'bitters' to you and me) to flavor their G&Ts, which is a nice and unusual touch.
Address: Calle del Barco, 4, 28004 Madrid, Spain
See also: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Madrid
4. Bernardo Cocktail Bar, Bilbao
A cocktail bar that won a local award for the best gin and tonic, their laborious G&T preparation involves tea (again), but this time infused first in water, with the infused discarded (or drunk) and the fresh tea leaves then added to your G&T. Worth the wait!
Address: Calle Gran Vía, 69, 48011 Bilbao, Bizkaia, Spain
5. Gin&T Bar, Ronda
Two things stand out about this bar. Firstly, Ronda is a small city, so far removed most populated areas of Spain that it was pretty much the last Moorish stronghold to fall during the reconquista, largely because everyone had forgotten about it. For such a good G&T bar to exist here is unusual.
Secondly, when I was there they had an assortment of 'Tea tonic' teabags, which are intended to be infused in your gin before the tonic is added. I'd never seen this before (or since) and I am dubious about the Tanqueray branding on the teabags but it's an interesting idea, nonetheless.
Address: For some reason, their address is given on Facebook and Tripadvisor as "junto a la cerveceria cero grado [next to Cero Grado Cerveceria], 29400 Ronda, Spain". The location didn't seem so unusual when I was there as to require such a description.
For the record, the address of Cero Grado Cerveceria is Calle Comandante Salvador Carrasco, 29400 Ronda, Málaga, Spain