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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gin and tonic

I like me a nice cold gin and tonic on a sultry summer evening. But i noticed over the weekend that the GT i was sipping wasn't quite as refreshing as it should have been. I checked the tonic water bottle, and yep, high fructose corn syrup is the second ingredient listed. I guess i might have noticed this a while back, but for some reason it became a problem only now.

So i did what any respectable GT drinker would do - I went to the supermarket looking for unsweetened tonic water. I ended up going to 4 or 5 stores, including Whole Foods, before i gave up, not wanting to increase my carbon footprint any more than i had.

A google search on "unsweetened tonic water" led me down several paths, not all of which are worth sharing. I did learn more about quinine and its role in colonizing tropical lands than i ever imagined. To the point, though, i learned i wasn't alone in my quest for unsweetened, or at least lightly sweetened, tonic water. The big mixer makers, Canada Dry and Schweppes, don't make an unsweetened tonic water (as opposed to a sugar free tonic water) in the US. There were rumors on some discussion boards of an independent bottler in Maine or New Hampshire, or a small grocery in western Pennsylvania, where one could pick up a 6 pack of Schweppes tonic water made the old school way, but none of those posts were less than 2 year old.

Schweppes Europe makes a product called Indian tonic water that's supposed to be relatively unsweetened. Only a handful of specialty importers, including one outside of Charlotte called Minos, had it listed on their websites. But none were actually available for order. At about 3+ bucks per 1.5 liter bottle it's a bit pricier than the syrupy stuff they're selling here. Add in the shipping, and 12 bottles quickly got up to $65 - 75, if it had been available. Minos also had a listing for Schweppes bitter lemon, a carbonated, lightly sweetened soda made with quinine, which is avvailable, and might be a last chance solution.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs out there have taken notice. There are two companies that i can find, one in England, one in the US, making boutique tonic water. And i do mean boutique. Fever Tree in England (the local name for the plant from which quinine is extracted translates as fever tree) and QTonic here in the States are doing the tried and true method of highly limited production and distribution coupled with insane pricing. Fever Tree's website says that their products are available at Whole Foods. Not in Durham, they ain't. I did find a 4 pack of 6.5 ounce bottles of QTonic at Parker and Otis.

For 10 dollars.

That's $2.50 for a Little Kings size bottle. 24 of them would be 60 bucks, although there might be a case discount. (There's a guy on selling them for, i think, $50, including shipping.) To put that into context, a case of Coronita's, 24 7 ounce bottles, costs $19 - 20 in local supermarkets, $17 on sale. So that's 3 times as much for a non-alcoholic mixer. Or put it this way. My preferred gin costs $13 at the ABC for 750 ml. A 4 pack of QTonic is just about 750 ml. And costs 77% of what the gin costs. The commercial tonic waters run about a buck and a quarter for a liter; store brands about 75 cents.

Now, we did a blind taste test of GTs mixed with Canada Dry and with QTonic, and the overly sweet CD version was easily distinguishable, and inferior. But, can you justify a cocktail made at home that costs about 4 bucks to make, with most of that cost coming from the mixer? I sure can't.

People, there is a marketing opportunity here. Put an unsweetened tonic water on the market for $3 - 4 liter, and bring some competition into this boutique market. It can't possible cost that much more to make this 10 dollar stuff than it does to make the commercial variety. Sure, the bottle are beautiful, but i'm not drinking the bottle. I'm not even saving the bottle. I'm putting it directly into my shiny new 90 gallon blue recycling bin.

And for that, i don't need to spend an extra 7 bucks a 4 pack, if you know what i mean.

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  • If you're serious about this, you can make a syrup to your liking that you mix with seltzer to carbonate.

    By Blogger Brian, at 3:02 PM  

  • e.g.:

    By Blogger Brian, at 3:02 PM  

  • Probably should have added that i experimented with a bitter carbonated water last night - juice of one lemon and a scant teaspoon of Angostura bitters to a liter of seltzer water, in my own seltzer maker.

    An acceptable cocktail mix, but not quinine water.

    I will definitely look into acquiring some cinchona bark this week.

    Thanks for the tip.

    By Blogger Barry, at 3:12 PM  

  • I came up with the same thing as Brian's link. Hmm. Agave syrup??

    By Blogger girlnblack77, at 3:57 PM  

  • Agave syrup doesn't really appeal to me, to be honest. I might try it with a very small amount of simple syrup, to see if it really needs a sweetener despite all that fruit juice.

    By Blogger Barry, at 4:12 PM  

  • GREAT post.

    By Blogger Vera, at 8:32 AM  

  • Bitter lemon, while delicious, would not work well as a replacement for tonic. It's very fizzy intiailly, but goes flat relatively quickly.

    By Blogger Natalie and Harris, at 1:13 PM  

  • Question -- was tonic water, going back to whenever the G&T became a standard drink, ever really unsweetened? I'm sure it wasn't HFCS in it, but I figured it probably had cane syrup in it originally. The NYT seems to agree in an article on the origin of Q Tonic:

    It also looks like Whole Foods has a 365 brand tonic with cane sugar.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 2:16 PM  

  • I'm willing to accept that much of my memory of how bitter tonic water tasted when i was a kid is colored by my unevolved taste buds. Bitter, as i recall it, is a flavor that kids are much more sensitive to than adults.

    That said, though, even the cane sweetened tonics are a bit much for me, i think.

    Thanks to Brian, i've got some recipes to experiment with, and a source for powdered quinine extract at $24/lb. Since an ounce flavors about a liter of water, maybe a little more, the cost is only about a buck and a half per liter.

    I'll post how things come out.

    I'll probably keep the WF house brand in stock for the time being, cause 10 bucks for a 4 pak isn't working for me.

    By Blogger Barry, at 3:08 PM  

  • Stirrings tonic is also quite good and has no HFCS. They sell online (fourpack is $5) and also at Southern Season. I think the price is about the same there as the website.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:43 PM  

  • Try sparkling mineral water

    By Blogger JimDandy, at 12:11 PM  

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