Far too many Americans turn up their noses to gin, never expanding their booze palates beyond vodka and the occasional margarita; and this is a damn shame. Juniper can be an aquired taste, but with a wide array of gins appearing on the shelves of the city's best bars – some of which taste more of citrus or cucumber than juniper – there's every reason to believe that there's a gin out there to suit every taste. And there's nothing more refreshing on a warm day than the most classic of classic highballs, the gin and tonic.
Any bartender will tell you that when it comes to mixology, they'll always turn to gin before vodka as the base of a cocktail, because why use something that has no flavor profile of its own when you can be adding another level of flavor with a nice gin? Gin is flavored vodka, basically, and different gins have been made by infusing different combinations of botanicals. Juniper is usually the primary flavor, but there could be dozens of others in there including cardamom, star anise, orange, balsam, grapefruit, cucumber, and coriander.
There's no better place to start your gin education than with a gin and tonic tasting, and a number of San Francisco bartenders have been riffing on this classic, adding house-made tonic syrups and soda instead of bottled tonic, layering in extra ingredients, and/or garnishing the drink with fragrant botanicals.
At Michael Chiarello's waterfront Spanish destination, the stars of the bar program are the selection of Barcelona-style gintonics, some of which veer greatly from the standard; like the Conquistador, made with house-made anise tonic, apple-celery juice, Nolet's gin, and a chili-fennel salt rim. But the more classic Barca Gintonic is a simpler combination of Bloom London Dry gin with Fever Tree's Mediterranean tonic, and it's garnished with grapefruit, juniper berries, flowers, and local pine. Pier 5, on the Embarcadero
The bar menu at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel downtown has had gin and tonics at its center since it got a makeover two years ago. Among them is one dubbed A Spring Hike on Mt. Tam, which utilizes St. George Spirits' pine-heavy Terroir gin along with rosemary tonic water and Sensei mandarin. And they make an Aged G&T using the delicious, brown-tinged, barrel-aged Rusty Blade gin along with sensei saffron tonic and garnished with a burnt orange twist. 222 Sansome Street
At the bar at the British-inspired Cavalier, you'll find a grand, tall variation on the G&T dubbed the Royal G&T. This version, served in a big milkshake glass, features Beefeater 24, lemon, and Fever Tree tonic with the added element of Dubonnet Blanc to round things out. It's ultra-refreshing, goes down easy, and may be the biggest gin and tonic in town. 360 Jessie Street
Gin and tonics are big in India, too, and for the always interesting cocktail menu at Dosa, owner Anjan Mitra went to Old World Spirits (the makers of Blade gin) and had them produce a limited-edition Dosa Blade gin, utilizing Indian botanicals like black peppercorn and curry leaves. The gin alone is unique, spicy, and worth a taste, but it's also deliciously refreshing in Dosa's South Indian Gin & Tonic, with house-made fig-cardamom tonic syrup and soda. 995 Valencia and 1700 Fillmore
Bar manager Brandon Clements has also gone to local distillers to create limited-edition, seasonal gins for the Bacchus Management Group (which includes Spruce, Cafe Des Amis, and Village Pub in Woodside). The current offering was made by Spirits Works Distillery in Sebastopol and is heavy on the cardamom and coriander. Try it with tonic, and you won't be disappointed. 3640 Sacramento Street