Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar: If life gives you lemons... make gin and tonic
It’s probably the most famous drink in the world. Three measures of Gordon’s Dry Gin, one of Vodka, half a measure of Dry Vermouth. Shaken, not stirred, until ice-cold. Then garnished with a large, thin slice of lemon peel. It’s James Bond’s Vesper Martini (named for the fictional spy’s one true love, Vesper Lynd), and it’s making a comeback.
From New York and LA to London and even Mumbai, it’s gin gin gin all the way. Gin with cucumber, gin with dry sherry, gin with lemon juice, gin with Thai basil, gin with muddled grapes, gin with elderflower liqueur or orange bitters…They now say, “When life gives you lemons make a gin and tonic”. You can even get that on a T-shirt.
I love gin. My go-to daytime drink has never been beer; it was always Gin and Tonic. My romance with gin began before I was old enough to balance a glass in my little hands. Every Sunday morning was beer and gin time at my aunt’s house. They lived in a sprawling flat with a cheerful terrace overlooking Chowpatty Beach, with a cold air-conditioned glass room smack in the middle of that sunny rooftop. My grandparents, aunts and uncles would religiously gather there every Sunday morning for a pre-lunch libation to good times.
The men would slug beers and my grandmom would have her version of a Martini. It was a shot of gin in a small glass cup with a long stem, with an equal amount of Cinzano Rosso vermouth (a nearly-300-year-old Italian aperitif) and a cube of ice. This blood red, rather strong mixture was potent but delicious on a warm Sunday morning. And if I happened to be sitting on her lap, she’d tip a few drops in my direction. On other days, the women would pour themselves large portions of Gordon’s Dry Gin, mix in some of the very yellow Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial (I was delighted and surprised to find its still available) and add soda and ice, to make a version of the Gimlet.
In those days, if you could not afford Gordon’s, the desi brand you favoured was Blue Riband. An Indian-made brew, it was a bit harsh and to me it tasted like a cross between diesel and turpentine, but it did the job. But the gin that really hit the mark was Forbes. Forbes Gin made me a gin-courter. My teetotaller father worked for Forbes Campbell and our flat always had a stockpile of Forbes Gin in crates, which he thankfully neither touched nor grudged.
Friends would turn up, and with them, my giggling mother would join in to demolish this constantly replenished stock of free booze. At home Forbes Gin was nectar enough to sip it just with cubes of ice. And maybe a dash of Bitters from a small bottle of Angostura that had been in our bar for over 40 years.
The legend of Forbes Gin followed me to the hallowed grounds of my college as well. It was a regular after-hours ritual, as the sun went down and the acres of forest campus (between Dhobi Talao and Crawford market) turned quiet; it was our version of happy hour.
The canteen owner Laxman would make a huge pot of limbu pani, and we’d procure bottles of gin from Shah Wines across the road, and spike the pot. Then our band of guzzlers, with a few candles to add character and atmosphere, would dip in with chai glasses and make merry. Forbes Gin was nice. You could drink it on the rocks and to my senses had a slight flavour of rose water. But I could be wrong.
Gin is one of those rare liquors that is made with a great amount of diversity. Yes it should ideally carry the predominant flavour of juniper berries, but depending on the maker, flavours like cucumber or citrus, elderflower, saffron, or even the gusto of a blood red Shiraz may weave itself into a gin. Each distiller uses a different recipe and often adds botanicals like almond, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, Angelica seed, coriander seed, fennel, lemon or orange peel, indeed anything they may fancy.
In India too there is a small and slow revolution happening. We now have our first artisanal ‘London Dry Gin’. A London Dry Gin is one whose botanicals and ingredients are added while the alcohol is being distilled, not after. This locally crafted gin is called Greater Than. It’s strong on juniper, with a lemon bouquet and an after- taste of ginger. It goes wonderfully with tonic and seems to be just the beginning of an artisanal liquor revolution.
With a craft gin being made in India, could artisanal tonic be far behind? Svami is India’s first artisan tonic, a natural Indian tonic water with the option of flavours — grapefruit, rosemary, cucumber and more.
As the legend goes, Quinine (which still remains an ingredient in tonic water) was mixed in as a cure for malaria for soldiers of the British Army. But quinine tasted objectionable and bitter, so they added water, sugar, lime and gin, to make it more palatable, and the gin and tonic was born.
Gin and Tonic are the Simon and Garfunkel of booze, a duo with the searing chemistry of Mulder and Scully, the spunk of Lewis and Martin and the flair of Bonnie and Clyde.
As the boutique gin market burgeons and artisan distilleries create astonishing botanicals like almonds, rose petal, lavender and pepper, I believe the age of gin and the time of tonic is here.