Regular readers of this column know that I'm a fan of the gin and tonic, but only when the tonic is good. Back in the day, there was no good tonic. So I remember my life changing when I found that the Slanted Door was using Schwepp's Indian Tonic, something that at the time, no one else in the city had. Then it changed again, when Fever Tree tonic water came out a couple of years ago. Nowadays, with those two tonics easily available as well as other good tonics like Q and Stirrings plentifully on the market, there's simply no excuse to ever have a bad G&T.
But I will say that my life changed again last night while at the bar at Pizzaiolo, in Oakland. There, I had the homemade tonic water from bartender Cate Whalen. I've tried some homemade tonics before, but none so good as this. Whalen, whose prodigious talents (and brilliant personality) I became acquainted over the years she was behind the bar at the Slanted Door, was a SF Chronicle "bar star" this year. Her tonic, which she makes as a light syrup, is infused with cinchona bark and a plethora of flowering herbs and flowers (including wormwood) that grow in her prodigious backyard, as well as citrus peel and spices. She mixes the syrup with gin (Plymouth), soda and lime to complete the drink.
Now some people may be taken aback, because the G&T they're used to is crystal clear and glittering with bubbly spritz. Whalen's, because of the bark and the plants, is a murky brown. To be honest, the cocktail doesn't look like much. But when something tastes this good, Who cares?!? It's by far the most complex, redolent, engaging, and evocative gin and tonic I've had. If you don't get to Oakland so often, this is one great reason to go right away. Whalen told me that it's the end of the season for many of the aromatic lovelies that she grows behind her house. The tonic won't go away as we move into autumn, it will just change its flavor profile, which leads to an intriguing prospect: the seasonal tonic. Also, one tip: Whalen's rum and tonic might even be more delicious than the one with gin.