Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In which I make tonic syrup (solely to ward off malaria, of course)

So as I've noted before, we have a four-tap kegerator in our basement, and one of those four taps is reserved for a non-alcoholic offering. More often than not, that non-alcoholic offering is either root beer or seltzer water. Now as much as Leah and I love beer, we also enjoy other alcoholic beverages from time to time, and one of our favorite non-beer drinks is the good ol' gin and tonic. Lately a few premium tonic waters have popped up on the market, and while they're definitely better than Schweppes, they're also pretty damn expensive. So I figured, if I already have seltzer on tap, why not make my own tonic syrup?

Sure enough, a quick google search yielded two fairly simple recipes, with the second being a derivative of the first. It seems the basic ingredients are pretty simple: cinchona bark (from which the bitter, signature quinine is derived), a sweetener, and a little acid (possibly for a preservative; possibly to invert the sugar to avoid crystalizing). Beyond that, the one used a little lime and lemongrass for aromatics, and the other used a few more ingredients.

The big question for me was which aromatics I wanted to use. Part of me thought the aromatics are where I can really have some fun and make it a unique tonic. But at the same time, I thought about the drink's purpose as a mixer, and since I enjoy trying different types of gin, I didn't want to create something that would compete with the gin's flavors or only complement certain brands of gin. Initially I considered using no aromatics at all, but in the end I decided that for my first attempt I would go with the more basic recipe using just lime and lemongrass.

Well, I ran into one small problem: I couldn't find lemongrass. Yeah, I know Asian markets are supposed to be the best place to find it, but I didn't have time to run out to one so I had to go with a plan b. Some cooking guides suggested lemon zest and ginger could somewhat replicate the flavor of lemongrass, so I decided to go with that. And then, thinking about how lemongrass is a stalk, I decided that I wanted something "green" tasting to add as well, so I picked up a cucumber. So much for my idea of keeping things simple.

Finally, I had to decide on what sweetener to use. One commercial brand of tonic uses cane sugar; the other uses agave syrup. My favorite sweeteners are turbinado sugar, honey and maple syrup. Maple seemed too distinct for making tonic, so I decided to use 50% turbinado sugar and 50% honey for my recipe.
Putting it all together, here's the recipe I came up with:

1 cup water
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 lime (sliced into four pieces)
zest of one very small lemon
1/8 tsp. fresh ginger
2 inches of the end of a cucumber, cubed
1/2 tsp. cinchona bark
1 tsp. lactic acid

I started by combining the sugar, honey and water and heating until dissolved. Then I added the cinchona bark and other ingredients and simmered for 15 minutes. After that, I poured the whole mixture in a large French press to filter it. The French press doesn't get the bark (as it's a fine powder) and some suggest filtering through coffee filters but that would seem to take FOREVER and I found that it was barely noticeable. I figured after a day or two in the fridge it would settle out anyway.

So how were the results? Pretty damn good overall! The first tricky thing was finding a good balance of syrup, seltzer and gin. I found 1 tablespoon (1/2 oz.) tonic syrup, 1.5 oz. gin and 2 oz. seltzer to be a good ratio (I mix the syrup and gin together and then top it off with an equal amount of seltzer). Now that being said, I do think that it was a bit on the sweet side, so next time I may cut down on the sugar and honey and up the cinchoa bark just a bit. But I was really happy with the aromatics. I think they all gave the syrup some depth but no single flavor was overpowering. They blended very well with Citadelle gin (a fairly traditional, reasonably-priced French gin) and I'm going to try it with North Shore Modern Gin next.

So there you have it... A fun little project for those of you looking to pass the time between brew days. If anybody else tries this recipe (or one similar to it) I'd love to hear how yours turns out, or any suggestions you may have.


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