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The Evolution of the Gin & Tonic

Photography by: Rob Stark

The British may have invented the gin and tonic, but the Spanish have perfected it. At the turn of the 19th century, British naval officers sailing between Britain and India began to add sugar, limes and gin to the horribly bitter quinine they took daily to prevent malaria. The gin and tonic was born.

The drink remained much the same for over 200 years until journalist Rafael Garcia Santos held a series of gastronomical summits for Spanish chefs in San Sebastian from 1999-2009. Spain’s most innovative culinary minds came together to muse over foods of the past, present and future. Each night of the summit when the chefs would gather afterward for drinks, it was the gin and tonic, or gin-tonica as they call it in Spain, that began to emerge as the favorite. An unnamed chef first had the idea to move the drink from the age-old rocks glass into a large goblet-style wine glass. The extra room for ice and more tonic allowed the ever-thirsty chefs to sip their gin-tonics back in their kitchens without the heat of open flames melting their tasty drinks.

The chefs began to play with the recipes. One would ask the bartender to add a slice of orange; another added a sprig of rosemary from the kitchen; someone else began to crack black pepper on top of their cocktail. The possibilities were endless. Word soon got out that the gastro world’s best and brightest were doctoring up gin-tonics in San Sebastian and bars in Barcelona and Madrid began adding customized gin-tonics to their menus. Within a few years, it became common to see gins paired with different tonics; each blend served with an imaginative combination of botanical garnishes. Some bars began to carry as many as 50 different gins; each one served differently.

The United States finally caught up. The mid-2000’s saw the beginning of the craft cocktail resurgence, and everyone’s focus was on the almost lost pre-prohibition concoctions of the late 19th century. While Spain was putting lemon verbena and smoked Thai chilis into G&Ts, bartenders stateside were rolling up their sleeves, waxing their mustaches and stirring Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs and Vieux Carrés, the likes of which our country hadn’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt was in the Oval Office. The speakeasy craze has begun to die down a bit, and barkeeps are turning their attention to the rest of the world. Tiki bars, Asian-inspired cocktails and Spanish G&Ts are becoming more popular by the day.

Gin-Tonicas offer a brief escape from today’s minimalism. Many American bartenders uphold centuries old rituals with a sense of condescension towards lavish beverages. American cocktail philosophy tends towards stripping things down to the essentials, whereas our friends from across the Atlantic prefer the unnecessary. The utter disregard for tradition and rules is what attracts me to Spain’s cocktail scene and what helps inspire our bar program at Loquita in Santa Barbara. It takes an almost childlike imagination to push the boundaries of a drink when so many people have already done it in so many ways. The Spanish G&T offers us a chance to escape the drudging monotony of day-to -day life and step into the whimsy of a new world. At Loquita, we create four versions – the Maravilloso, Pomada, Monte Perdido and the Costa Blanca, all inspired by Spain but have a feel of the time and space that is Santa Barbara.

So the next time you mix a Gin and Tonic, do yourself a favor and dress it up a bit. Gin cleans up well, I promise.

Gavin Koehn is the Bar Manager at Loquita, a Spanish-influenced restaurant

in the Funk Zone section of Santa Barbara. When not behind the bar at Loquita,

he can be seen mixing it up in cocktail competitions around the world.

Photo By: Garrett Geyer




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