tonic for the soul: eugene’s own indie pop and the perfect gin & tonic

With full confidence this endless wet winter will end, it is time to discuss gin and tonic, summer’s hot celebrity romance.

I spent a pleasant afternoon with the popsters behind Eugene’s premier soda outfit, Indie Pop.  We set out to  make blood orange-kumquat tonic water in Hummingbird Wholesale’s Stellaria building, where they are renting space in the new commercial kitchen and warehouse.  The tonic water will eventually be installed in situ at Izakaya Meiji, so watch out for it!  They’re working on some finicky equipment this week.

The day of my visit, a slightly strange but complimentary article on the team came out in the Register-Guard.  (If you want to know less about what consumer trend analysts say and more about, say, Indie Pop’s flavors, skip that and go here.)  We chatted about the fantastic photo of bartenders Richard Geil and Melanie Mikell and investor Ben Fogelson dressed as spies on the run as they whipped up an experimental batch of tarragon-meyer lemon soda.  Not bad!  And I am very much looking forward to a review of the suggested adult beverage that evoked the Russian-ness of tarkhun, a day-glo tarragon soda.  Ben made off with the batch.  I hope at least one Green Russian was made.

And then we got to the business of tonic!  That day’s seasonal fruit addition was blood orange and kumquat.  Indie Pop design guru Mike Smith chopped.

Richard juiced and expressed the oil from the peels by mashing them into a maceration with hot water before adding honey, a secret ingredient, and powdered cinchona bark.  Cinchona is the source of quinine, the unique bitterness that makes tonic water tonicky and allowed British colonizing powers to acquire sunny days all over its Empire.

It’s also a difficult ingredient to use in its natural state, as it doesn’t seem to vary with steeping so you can’t adjust the bitterness, and it tends to leave a trace of cinnamon-tinged woodiness to the preparation.  I found the citrus really helped marry the flavors.  The acidic sweetness of the blood orange, made just a bit more tart by the secret ingredient, and a batch of not-quite-ripe kumquats provided the zing.

Once the flavors macerated, we strained out the solids and carbonated.  That’s it!  Simple and wonderful.

Richard has been making tonic syrup and sodas since his days working behind the bar at Bel Ami with Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who originally developed a recipe using grapefruit and kumquat, if I remember correctly.  Grapefruit, lemon, and lime make for a tart and delicious combination.  Richard and Mel have done some experimentation with unexpected additions to the tonic, like lavender, which Richard said was hard to pin down but interesting when it worked, and lemongrass.  Would Buddha’s hand or yuzu be too mild?  That’s what I’d like to see.

So.  Check ’em out.  As I mentioned before, Indie Pop will soon have its very own tap at Izakaya Meiji.  Indie Pop also provides tonic water to Belly (below) and occasionally makes up batches of tonic syrup at Rabbit Bistro.  You can find their sodas in these places, as well, and at PartyCart, which always seems to have the cool experimental flavors like hops-honey or candy-apple or my favorite, rhubarb.

That ain’t no margarita, señorita.

If you’re interested in making your own gin and tonics at home, there really isn’t a better drink to include in your repertoire.  And as I learned recently in Taipei, the only cocktail to order in a suspicious bar is the gin and tonic, since it’s so hard to mess it up.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be made better, though.

Exhibit A: you can geek out about the perfect temperature and ice-hooch ratio chez drink blogger extraordinaire, Kaiser Penguin.

Exhibit B:  Scott Butler, the newly engaged bartender at Rabbit (congratulations, Scott!), suggests just a tiny splash of the Italian aperitivo Cocchi Americano to embitter a natural tonic water like Indie Pop’s (or Q or Fever Tree, if you ask me).  Those of us who are used to the paint thinner known as Schweppes tonic water might need a bit more oomph.  Call it a North and South Gin Tonic, or something.  But it’s good.

The rest of you might just want to chill out and just listen to my advice about….

The Perfect Gin & Tonic

  • 2 oz. Plymouth gin, chilled
  • 3 oz. tonic water, chilled and fresh if from can
  • 3-4 ice cubes made of tonic water
  • lemon slice

The night before, make tonic water ice cubes in a tray with large cubes.  Tonic water cubes are a brilliant way to prevent the drink from being diluted with water on a hot day.  Still, you want the ice to be as cold as possible.

In a lowball glass (yes, I know highball glasses are more accurate, but I like the low ones), add the following quickly: your ice, then the gin, then the tonic water.  Stir gently just to blend without destroying the fizz.  Garnish with lemon slice.

My Gin & Tonic

In any size glass as long as it is large, add large ice cubes about 2/3 the way up the glass.  Pour in gin until it looks like it might be too much.  Pour in tonic to cover the ice cubes, probably too much but you’re worried that you added too much gin.  Take a chopstick and push down on the ice rapidly, like a plunger, to approximate mixing (you may also use your finger to plunge). Drink some off the top because that method is a one-way ticket to Spillsville.  Add a drop of Fee’s lemon bitters because you forgot to buy lemons again.  Plunge once more.  Enjoy.


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