Splashes Worth the Splurge
Premium mixers are a priority for maintaining the quality of craft cocktails.
It was nearly a decade ago, coinciding with the ascent of the quality cocktail, when I was invited to get a drink with a dashing British gent by the name of Tim Warrillow. He was in New York because, along with business partner Charles Rolls, he had developed an Indian tonic water that was a far cry from the liquid found in all those bottles of Schweppes crowding supermarket shelves.
The name of their company was Fever-Tree—a reference to the cinchona tree that spawns tonic’s most essential ingredient, quinine—and their goal was to put pure botanical ingredients (like quinine sourced from the Rwanda Congo) in the spotlight, not the synthetic sweeteners that dominated the category. Since then, the company has grown to make a number of other tonic iterations, as well as ginger ale, ginger beer, club soda, and—perhaps my favorite—the sparkling and bitter lemon mixers. Restaurants and bars around the country have embraced Fever-Tree as their tonic of choice, and customers are now just as excited to see a bartender crack open a bottle when they order a classic G&T.
With the advent of superior, well-crafted cocktails, it only makes sense that premium mixers would become just as much of a barkeep’s priority as lovingly made syrups and bitters. What is the point of belaboring over a drink only to muck up a Moscow Mule with a sub-par ginger beer? This is why many a bartender makes his or her own mixers from scratch. When this does not prove a feasible endeavor from an operational stance, they know they can rely on top-notch alternatives like Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., as well as the organic quinine syrup Tomr’s and John’s Premium Tonic Water, made from a base of organic agave nectar. There is simply no room for a liter of ho-hum Canada Dry tonic in a thoughtful beverage program.
Anna Mitchell, bartender at Capa, the Spanish-inflected steakhouse at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, is a fan of Fever-Tree’s ginger beer “because it’s spicy and authentic.” Fever-Tree’s thyme- and rosemary- accented Mediterranean tonic water also finds its way into Mitchell’s G&Ts.
“There were several dark decades in the cocktail world during which time pre-packaged, preserved mixers flourished. As powdered sour mix becomes a thing of the past, it is inspiring to see bartenders using fresh herbs and seasonal produce to create drinks,” she explains. “This movement opens the door for many smaller companies, which make sodas, tonics, and bitters with integrity product and family recipes, to become known brands in a quality-focused market.”
At Capa, Mitchell makes all the restaurant’s syrups—including mint, orgeat, and green chile—in-house. “Well-made sodas, syrups, and other mixers will use fresh, natural ingredients that translate to a drink’s flavor and texture. They tend to be milder and, when mixed properly, don’t overpower cocktails like artificial flavors, sweeteners, and dyes tend to do,” she adds.
One of the libations on the menu of the Cocktail Club, in Charleston, South Carolina, is the Right and Wrong, melding locally made Hat Trick gin with Cocchi Americano, honey, sage, and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. tonic. The small-batch tonic, dreamed up by Charleston bartender Brooks Reitz, is packaged in an alluring apothecary bottle and is named for his great-grandfather. But this is no retro-inspired marketing gimmick. An infusion of real lemongrass and orange peel heightens concoctions in a way the fake stuff simply can’t. This is why at Leon’s Oyster Shop, also in Charleston, an Elderflower G&T, made with Reitz’s elderflower tonic and celery bitters, graces the menu.
At Tupelo Honey Café, with locations in Southern cities like Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, all the Gin and Tonics on tap also embrace Jack Rudy. Likewise, Tomr’s Tonic, the brainchild of New York City bartender Tom Richter, is made with quinine, citrus, herbs, and cane sugar. At New York City bars like Dear Irving, Tomr’s is used in a celery G&T with fresh celery juice, salt, and pepper; at Lantern’s Keep it combines with gin, Amer Picon liqueur, lime, cucumber, and mint in the Stonecutter Highball.
“I am very excited about the demand for quality tonic. People were at first put off by the color, and now more people want it than the clarified stuff out there,” Richter points out.
Darryl Chan, head bartender of Daniel Boulud’s esteemed Café Boulud and Bar Pleiades in New York City, also sees his guests coveting stellar tonic. “People are more concerned now with what they put in their body, and they’re aware of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and saccharine, so quality mixers make sense,” he says. “It’s like in everything we do. You really taste the love people put into what they make, so if there’s a mixer made with love mixed with a spirit made with love and proportioned by a bartender with love, the guests really pick up on that.”
Chan and his staff make their own ginger beer from fresh-pressed ginger and have flirted with the idea of tackling their own tonic, too. Yet because of the plethora of great options out there now, Chan says, “It was one less thing the bar team didn’t have to worry about in their mise en place. Instead we rely on those brands’ consistency for operation’s sake.” Like Mitchell, he is also a fan of the Fever-Tree tonic water because “it’s clean and dry but with nice citrus notes that go perfectly with Tanqueray No. 10,” he adds. “If they haven’t asked already, our more particular guests will wait to see what we pour into their G&T. Once they see we pop open that bottle of Fever-Tree, there’s a literal sigh of relief. Customers see it in their grocery stores, buy it, love it, and think, ‘If I could get it why can’t you?’”
Cranking up the quality, of course, means a higher operational cost for bars, but it’s worth it, Mitchell believes. “Fresh juice is always more pricey than bottled or preserved, but the quality is always worth the compromise—for the bartender or the guest. Housemade syrups are often quite cost-effective because typically you are using ingredients that can be cross-utilized. Pay good attention, and there won’t be a surplus of house ingredients as you often have when dealing with order minimums for ready-made bar mixers. This is a great way to impact product margins,” she explains.
Chan agrees: “The higher cost on quality ingredients is the money you save on labor in making your own quality mixer. The bar team has so much to worry about before a big night—like syrups, juices, infusions, and ice. It’s nice to not have one more thing.”
It’s priceless, however, to see how eagerly guests respond to exceptional products. “They are not only interested but excited to talk about the ingredients in their cocktails and what makes them unique,” Mitchell points out. “The more bartenders focus on making their own and using small batch tonics and bitters, the more our clientele is aware of that as a mark of craftsmanship and an intelligent cocktail program.”
With so many bartenders already casting aside inferior mixers, what’s next for the category? Chan, a fan of foraged ingredients, says that with “all the botanicals growing in our own backyards,” he would personally like to see “regional expressions of tonics.” Well, just like that evening 10 years ago, if a stranger wooed me to a bar with the promise of tasting a tonic made with, say, New York–grown sassafras, I would certainly come out and sip.