Ask An Expert: Why Pair Spirits With Tonic Water?


Kevin Law-Smith recommends tonic water with rum and... coffee


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Ask An Expert: Why Pair Spirits With Tonic Water?
Spirits November 26th, 2018

The secret to a bloody good G&T lies not only in excellent gin, but also good, dry tonic water. And that’s rare. Originally a medicinal drink that served as a way to deliver quinine (an antimalarial drug derived from the bark of the cinchona tree), off-the-shelf tonic water today tends to be packed with sugar and citric acid. This mars the beauty of gin and, if ¾ of your drink is your mixer, then it’s equivalent to quaffing a bad cola. 

A good tonic is one that lets a spirit’s flavour profile shine. Happily, there’s a growing emphasis on tonic and its contribution to great drink combinations. The T&T (tequila n’ tonic), for instance, is rising in the ranks. What’s a good alternative liquor? Kevin Law-Smith, founder of East Imperial Tonic Waters, tells us more.

There’s more to tonic water than the classic G&T. One can enjoy it with rum, vermouth or tequila. Photos by Vernon Wong

Kevin Law-Smith, Founder of East Imperial

The saying goes that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. Kevin Law-Smith, who was born in 1970 in Africa, decided to create his own after one too many bad encounters with average tonic water. He wanted to bring back the tradition of enjoying real, natural tonic water.

Armed with his great-grandfather’s recipe (one that was used to ward off malaria), he founded East Imperial and launched Old World Tonic in 2013. He has since added a few variations to the family. Everything is sourced from within Asia, with the exception of the water, which comes fresh from New Zealand’s springs.

The closest to what’s most natural is Kevin Law-Smith’s East Imperial Old World Tonic, made with a good amount of quinine and half the sugar. This way, it doesn’t steal the spirit’s thunder and everybody’s happy. 

What pairs with tonic as well as gin?

I’m a traditionalist and I like my gin and tonics. They were made for one another. You have the base of the quinine and the oils of the botanicals. With those two mixed together, you have much more than the sum of the two.

When you feel like giving the classic G&T a makeover, grab a bottle of rum. While gin cuts through tonic with a sharp juniper kick, a good bottle of rum adds plenty of flavour while keeping it nuanced. A natural tonic like our Old World strips away the sweetness and tingle of the supermarket mixer. Without so much citric acid and sugar, the mixability is better. Plus, it balances your drink with the right amount of brightness, bitterness and spice.

If whisky’s your drink, the tonic could be the start of an Old Fashioned. Because of its flavour profile, you can skip the sugar cube and bitters and simply add in whisky and orange peel.

While gin cuts through tonic with a sharp juniper kick, rum adds a variety of flavours while keeping it nuanced. Law-Smith recommends topping it up with frozen tonic for a long, sessionable drink.

Other great combinations include the vermouth (of all kinds) and espresso. Vermouth and tonic is a given, but not so much the espresso and tonic. It might sound like an odd coupling, but the earthiness and slight tang of the tonic go hand in hand with the brightness and floral notes of coffee. The stronger the coffee, the better. I recommend using Vietnamese, Ethiopian or Javanese beans. 

Equally delicious is the Paloma, Mexico’s most refreshing highball. What’s usually made of tequila, lime juice and grapefruit soda, can be upgraded with our grapefruit tonic. Don’t worry if you run out of tequila. Mezcal works just fine.

East Imperial Tonic Water and various spirits are available on the Keyyes Membership App

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