Photo from the awful din at Flickr.
It's happened to everyone at one time or another. One wanders into the hotel bar parched as only a weary business traveler can be parched or, if one is more fortunate, newly returned from some triumph and eager to signal your victory to the world with the cup of the Well-Deserved Victor. One eyes that hotel bar with eyes that blaze with the same hungry yet skeptical optimism with which the mathematically literate approach a scratch-off lottery ticket. And just as that lottery ticket so often disappoints so too does the hotel bar often disappoint.
The weary traveler is looking for the comfortable bottle from home and sees only institutional liquor. The celebrateur (we invent words here where Elitism Rules) sees prices that ought to indicate liquor worthy of heroes but not the labels to match them.
It is for these individuals - the stoic and the heroic - that we turn to the venerable vodka tonic. It is that drink which is truly the base of the drink pyramid. Every bar has a vodka, most vodkas are at least palatable, and even the most ignorant bartender can usually manage to mix the two together in proportions that pass for something like a drink.
That is, of course, why we suggest the vodka tonic and not the more known and more venerated gin-and-tonic. There are likely to be fine gins in a bar such as Tanqueray or other gins. Just as well, gin-and-tonics are a summertime drink that belong out of doors, on sand or grass, and in front of open water... certainly not ensconced within some urban superstructure nor for nighttime celebrations. One doesn't wear white after Memorial Day and one doesn't drink gin-and-tonic after sundown.
Tonic water itself originated as a medicinal liquid and was meant to ward off malaria. So the carbonated water was mixed with large amounts of quinine and even today one generally sees the ominous announcement on innocuous bottles of Schweppes or Canada Dry that pronounce contains quinine in the most disquieting of ways. Indeed, if one asks WebMD about quinine you quickly learn that quinine-sulfate is used to ward off chloroquine-resistant malaria, is given by injection in the vein, and can cause nausea, blurred vision, headache, and ringing in the ears.
Why that's excellent news, you're all probably thinking. All this time I thought it was the vodka when it was actually the bloody quinine! It's time to start drinking vodka like the Russians who've had it right all along.
Not so fast. We investigated a little further we learn this from the people at Small Bites: The reason why tonic water lists quinine prominently is because some people are highly sensitive to it. So, even though tonic water contains extremely low levels, the warning is there mainly as a 'cover your arse' tactic.
So much for that. Your hangover is not the quinine's fault.
Not to be outdone, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope had this to say on the subject of quinine in tonic water:
Nice try, sport, but no dice. Tonic water contains less than 20 milligrams of quinine per six fluid ounces. The recommended quinine dosage for treatment of malaria is two or three 200-350 milligram tablets three times a day. If you drink the equivalent of that in gin and tonics, malaria will be the least of your problems.
Returning to our original point, the bitterness in the quinine - along with the sugar content of most sweetened tonic waters on the market - will enhance (or in some extreme cases, disguise) the taste of any vodka that happens to be present in that hotel bar.
Just about any cocktail recipe website has a vodka tonic of one kind or another all with people mentioning their enthusiasm for this simple drink. Vodka tonic [with] lime on ice goes great with a great man and a hot tub... announced princessddk at Drink Street. There's even a website devoted to the vodka tonic called - appropriately enough-Vodkatonic.org. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much except sit there and suggest you like at it while drinking.
The best thing about the vodka tonic, however, is it's versatility. We've mentioned before how this simple drink can be easily dressed up with even hotel bar inventories. The most juvenile of bartenders can manage to put a splash of Cointreau-or in the most dire of circumstances, triple-sec - in the vodka tonic even after the drink is poured. It is astonishing what a little innocent orange liqueur can do to the taste of an otherwise pedestrian vodka tonic. The same is true for berry liqueurs and most hotel bars can come up with Chambord if only for the looks of the bottle.
For the truly elite, however, there are even boutique and specialty tonic waters. While they will not be available in the hotel bar, we feel they should be mentioned in any part of the internet where Elitism Rules (i.e., here). The New York Times published an article about tonic water in November of 2006 that mentioned Q Tonic as a company devoted to superior tonic water. The company says, The world's best spirits deserve a superior tonic water. They claim to use hand-picked quinine from Peru and to Mexico for organic agave. Our hats are off to a company that has created an elitist tonic water! SlashFood agreed saying, The taste is very clean, dry, and simple.
Proof66 is a place dedicated to making the great tastes of liquor more accessible and comprehensible. Fear not the labels; fear not the prices; and fear not the hotel bar. Drink orders need not be complex and the vodka tonic is an excellent example. It is an elegant drink in its own right that has room, like any good canvas, to grow with different alterations be they fruit, liqueurs, or boutique tonic waters. And from there, it is only a very, very small step to the wonderful and miraculous vodka martini.