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Michael Martensen is serious about gin and tonics.

A Spirited Affair: Gin and Tonic with Michael Martensen

History has proven, to those more inclined toward the epicurean delights, that no compelling reason is required to invent a cocktail. There is, for example, The Bronx, invented in 1935, the catalyst for its creation by Waldorf-Astoria bartender Johnnie Salon was merely to settle a bet. Or the descriptively named Corpse Reviver, whose moniker alone implies its function and how it relates to what can become a rather vicious cycle. The Manhattan owes its creation to the need for a special drink at a banquet. In fact, the history of the cocktail is littered with drinks invented with a carefree whimsy.

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Invented to help cure malaria. The gin and tonic is delicious malaria or not.

Such is not the case with the gin and tonic.

It is the malaria-spreading mosquito more than to any particular person to whom we owe thanks for this summertime favorite. As a vehicle to help the British colonists and military personnel in India consume the doses of bitter quinine-laden tonic to prevent and treat the disease, the tonic was mixed  with a dose of gin and lime juice to make the drink palatable and even refreshing in the subcontinent’s often-oppressive heat.

Since the early 1800s, both gin and tonic have changed, but the drink itself remains a staple in the cocktail lover’s repertoire.  It has inspired different iterations of itself as well as inspirations for entirely new cocktails. To delve deeper into this barroom staple and classic cocktail, we sat down with Michael Martensen, the master spirit mixer behind, Knife, Driftwood, and the upcoming Proof + Pantry.

Thanks for taking some time to chat with us, Michael. We’re talking about a pretty old cocktail with the gin and tonic. At its most basic, how would you describe this drink?

To me, I would describe a gin and tonic as probably the most refreshing drink in the world, as well as my overall favorite summertime cocktail.

As far as what it is, obviously it’s got those two ingredients in it – gin and tonic – but there are different styles beyond that. Here at Knife, we do our menu by styles of gin and tonics: there’s the American, which served with a lime, there’s the British style, which is served with a lemon – both are served tall – and then there’s the Spanish style, which is served with actual botanicals in a wine glass; almost a bowl. And those botanicals can be a number of things – a coriander blossom, a little kefir lime leaf, some tarragon, rosemary, lavender – you can have fun with it, whatever’s seasonal or whatever you can get your hands on.

You mentioned it’s your favorite summertime cocktail – can you describe what makes it work so well as a drink?

A lot of it has to do with the gin itself. The base of a London dry gin is Juniper. There’s a man by the name of Angus Winchester, who is arguably one of the most knowledgeable guys in the cocktail world, and he specializes in gin. When he talks about it he uses this comparison: the roots and trunk of an oak tree are the anchor – that’s the juniper in the gin. Then you get the branches that spur off of it, and those branches are flavors. So all these flavors are melded together by juniper. And gins can have all kinds of botanicals, they each have their own recipe and it’s almost getting ridiculous – like they’re putting unicorn tears in there or something – but your base is still going to be juniper. It will have a botanical aspect that exudes acid notes – not lime or lemon, but more like coriander or some sort of bark or something a little bitter that goes in the gin as well, but the base is always juniper.

What’s fantastic is that quinine has as many botanical-esque properties as gin does, and that’s why they accentuate each other so well.

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So between the different gins, tonics and garnishes, you have a pretty broad spectrum of tastes that a gin and tonic can deliver?

The drink is so simple, but there are so many variables. I can pick up one of 230 gins that we can get our hands on around the world, and as for tonics, here alone I’ve got Fevertree, Q Tonic, Fentiman’s, Tomer’s Tonic Syrup and Small Hand Foods Tonic Syrup. So five tonics, 230 gins, and then let’s throw in English, American and Spanish – and all its possible botanicals – and the possibilities are infinite. You can open up a bar and just serve gin and tonics all day and keep it fresh and relevant. You really could. When you look at it like that, you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this drink is amazing!’ It’s just not appreciated as much as it should be.

Why not?

I honestly think it’s simply because of tonic water from a gun and bartenders not properly using the right mix of tonic to gin.  A lot of times I’ll get a tonic and gin and I’m like, ‘Well yeah, I like gin. But I like tonic, too. Where’s the tonic?” For me, 60 percent tonic to 40 percent gin is a good mix. I don’t want to taste just gin – If I just wanted to just taste gin I’d have a martini. But I love the bite and bitterness of tonic and how it complements the gin. That’s the point of the drink.

You mentioned the soda gun also being detrimental to the drink’s popularity?

I really do think so many people have been turned off to it just because they get a 50/50 from a gun. There are so many variables – the tonic could be flat, the ratios of CO2 to this or that aren’t right, the lines need to be cleaned – there are a million different things. To be honest, I think the gun loses every cocktail in translation.

Just open the 10-ounce bottle of tonic.

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So use a good tonic – is there a specific type of gin you prefer?

A London dry is what I prefer. It’s all personal preference, but I tend to believe that for a proper gin and tonic, you have to have a proper London dry gin – Tanqueray, Beefeater, Bombay, even Plymouth gin works really nicely as well. Just the old school gin styles that will give you a good, strong, solid gin.

So someone wanting to make one at home can make a legit one with some pretty accessible ingredients?

Exactly. It’s got accessibility.

Is it against the rules to get a little creative?

Not at all. Some people are even dropping a dash of Peychaud’s bitters in their tonics. I honestly love putting a bar spoon of Aperol in my gin and tonic; yeah, it makes it look pink and girly (laughs), but I like bitter, and Aperol with gin and tonic is delicious. You can drop celery bitters in there – imagine a drop of celery bitters in your gin and tonic. There are so many different options for this one drink to make it different and tailored to yourself.

Well, we should probably start taste testing to find the perfect fit, then?

(Laughs) I’m happy to help.