Nearly everyone has a bottle of Schweppes or Canada Dry tonic lurking in the back of their fridge — probably left over from a summer party where cheap gin was poured over ice in a red Solo cup and then diluted with tonic and perhaps a squirt of lime. The gin and tonic is a ubiquitous summer quencher and also a standard order at dive bars across the country, but not much thought is given to the drink — which doesn't even earn the designation of cocktail — beyond making sure it meets the basic requirement of being tangy and wet.
But in Spain, the combination of the juniper-based spirit and effervescent tonic — known as a gin tonic in that country — has risen to the level of an art form and fueled a national passion that rivals the frenzy around fútbol, tapas and sherry. And in the U.S., the gin tonic trend is just beginning to bubble up at bars and restaurants that specialize in either craft cocktails or Spanish cuisine. At Ultreia, the newest addition to Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch's Crafted Concepts restaurant group (which also includes Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine), bar manager Alan Berger is doing his best to introduce Denver to a cocktail that can be as complex and multi-faceted as champagne or as simple and refreshing as, well, a poolside gin and tonic.
Berger doesn't have any specific ties or allegiances to Spain; he's a Detroit kid named after a legendary Tigers shortstop (his full name is Alan Trammell Berger). But as a bartender, he began exploring the history of gin and found himself drawn to the spirit. "I liked gin and tonics before I started working here," the barman explains. "So it was a match made in heaven when Ultreia opened."
Gin has a long history in England, Berger points out, and the spirit has been exported to Spain for centuries. While the combination of gin and tonic is a British tradition that dates back to its medicinal use as a malaria preventative in tropical countries, it spread to Spain through commerce and tourism, and Spain now far surpasses Great Britain in per capita gin consumption. (Americans consume only a fraction of what Spaniards and Brits do.) It's not just the total volume that's impressive, though; Berger notes that there are also many more brands and styles of tonic available in Europe than in the U.S., making for a much wider variety of flavor permutations.
Berger tries to capture that variety in his stock behind Ultreia's bar at Union Station. He carries three styles of Fever-Tree (Mediterranean and Indian are the two workhorses, offering distinct blends of botanical ingredients), plus a couple of Fentimans tonics and Jack Rudy tonic syrup. The brands use different herbs and other botanicals for subtle flavor variations, but the mixer gets its bitter note from quinine, traditionally derived from a plant called cinchona. Berger reveals that English sailors were given tonic water to stave off malaria, but the flavor was so unpleasant that gin was added to make it more palatable.
While carrying anything other than generic tonic dispensed from a soda gun already puts Ultreia a step ahead of most bars, Berger's gin collection is truly eye-opening. "Most Spanish bars carry 40 tonics and 50 to 100 gins," he explains. "We have 44 gins, and I'm hoping to grow that to more than 50 in the next month or so."
Berger tastes every gin and shelves them by style: London dry, new American, Navy strength, to name a few. While juniper is the common thread, other ingredients add citrus, cucumber, pepper, fruit or vanilla notes; Berger designs his gin tonics to accentuate the flavors already present in the spirit and the mixer. A new seasonal cocktail, the Endless Summer, makes use of one of Colorado's defining summer fruits. "Nolet's gin has peaches in it — it's light, floral and delicate, so we added Palisade peaches," he says. A sprig of basil balances the sweetness of the peach.
As is traditional, Ultreia's gin tonics are served in big stemmed goblets over ice cubes. Extravagant garnishes are the norm in Spain, so sprigs of fresh herbs, slices of fruit and sprinklings of spices add color, making each goblet a miniature work of art behind curved glass. Another house specialty is the Blazing Saddles (the gin tonic lineup has a movie theme), made with Gunpowder Irish gin, which Berger says uses Asian spices in the distillation, Fentimans tonic (which adds lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf), sliced ginger, lime and a padrón chile sliced lengthwise.
Although there's a menu of gin tonics designed by Berger and his team, the bar manager encourages guests to go off-menu to find their own perfect combinations. He asks questions to help determine flavor preferences and then selects the gin, tonic and ingredients to match the customer's preferences. Monkey 47 is a favorite recommendation, though it runs on the high side of the price spectrum. It's made in Germany's Black Forest from local juniper and 46 other ingredients, mostly foraged from the woods near the distillery.
For something a little cheaper and closer to home, Leopold Brothers American Small Batch Gin, made in northeast Denver, is one of Berger's favorites. "The production, the facility, the people, how they operate — I love everything about them," he says. Leopold Brothers also makes a Navy strength gin and a citrus-forward summer gin that Ultreia currently stocks.
The Spanish-style gin tonics on the bar slate run from $11 to $15, not exactly a bargain if you're just looking for something to quench your thirst. But if you hit Ultreia during happy hour (from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays), you can land a house gin tonic made with Juniper Jones, from the Family Jones Spirit House in LoHi, for just $4. Berger infuses the gin with Thai butterfly pea flowers, tinting the spirit a bright blue not often found in natural food products. As he adds the tonic, the quinine turns the drink from blue to reddish-purple, giving you both a magic show and a refreshing beverage for your money.
Ultreia isn't the only gin tonic joint in town. Barcelona Wine Bar also serves the cocktail in large wine glasses, and Corrida offers a selection bolstered with Beefeater, Damrak, Monkey 47, Hendrick's or Mahon gins.
So rummage through your fridge and dump that flat bottle of tonic. There are still plenty of long, hot days left this summer for you to quench your thirst with a real gin tonic, and plenty of places to do it.
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