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Give Me Some Sugar, Baby (Updated)

An off bottle of Q Tonic severely affected the original review, so I’ve completely revised the tasting portion to reflect the proper results. See the Comments for more.

Whatever your explanation for creation, I’m sure you’ll agree that the Earth provides for us in staggering ways.  Sunlight and water and sustenance.  And sugar.  Amazing, natural sugar.  It’s so cheap and so good that it’s in most everything we eat and drink — from our soda, of course, to the ketchup on our fries.  At least, it should be.  Unfortunately, since the early 1970’s, it’s been pushed aside by the even cheaper, home-grown Frankenstein that is high fructose corn syrup.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, as this New York Times article illustrates.  In and of itself, high fructose corn syrup isn’t a horrible killer of mankind.  What it stands for is, though.  At a cost 20% to 70% lower than that of real sugar, it allows for manufacturers to increase portion sizes at much lower costs.  Big Gulps and Supersizing, anyone?  Therein, is the real problem: it’s so cheap, it’s being thrown into just about everything — from crackers to bread to Campbell’s soup.  According to the Times article, it’s really not much sweeter than sugar, nor is it that much more unhealthy.  It’s just oh so easy to get heavy handed with the stuff. Fortunately, drinks manufacturers everywhere are turning away from corn syrup and back to sugar.  Snapple’s “even better stuff” is just that.  Both Coke and Pepsi have recently put out real sugar versions.  There’s hope.

One of the disclaimers I regularly find myself reciting whenever I tell someone that I have a cocktail blog is that I really don’t drink all that much.  Years ago, the wife and I came to the conclusion that we wanted to live our lives with “less but better”.  There was so much stuff, which we really never needed, on which we had spent money.  We’d strip all that away, and rather than blow $100 on ephemera, we’d spent it on something of quality that would remain of quality for years to come, if not for the rest of our lives.  It was with that same driving force that I created 12 Bottle Bar, and I stand by the quality and integrity of each one of the bottles and drinks presented here.

That also goes for the mixers.  If you’ve read my posts on the Gimlet, the Cuba Libre, or the Painkiller, I’ve always strived to present the better, more honest alternative when it comes to mixer ingredients.  Having recently written up a couple of drinks involving tonic water, I thought it only appropriate to offer a few alternatives to supermarket Schweppes, which may contain sugar or corn syrup or both — they won’t be specific.

Here they are, then:  three micro-tonics, each boasting natural ingredients.  Fever-Tree and Fentiman’s use sugar.  Q Tonic gets its sweetness from agave nectar.  Fentiman’s is a hundred-plus year-old English brand that was resurrected in the late 1980’s by the great-grandson of the original founder. Fever-Tree, a modern English brand, was co-founded by Charles Rolls, who once ran Plymouth Gin (which means, the man should know his stuff).  Q Tonic, also modern, comes from Brooklyn.

Economically, these indie mixers are no bargain when compared to Schweppes, which, when bought in a six pack of 10 oz bottles, costs $0.09 per ounce.  In comparison, Fever-Tree runs $0.22 per ounce, Q Tonic $0.25 per ounce, and Fentiman’s a whopping $0.50 an ounce.  But here’s something to consider:  If you’re making a Gin and Tonic per the 12 Bottle Bar recipe, using Leopold’s, you’re pouring $3 worth of gin into that drink.  Knowing that, would you rather go with 27 cents of Schweppes to finish off your highball or $1.50 worth of Fentiman’s?  I say if you’re using quality liquor, use quality mixers.

But cost, of course, isn’t a measure of taste.   As with using real sugar Coca-Cola and lime juice over Rose’s Lime , there is a marked difference when you pick good ingredients — especially with something like tonic water.  The wife and I did two blind taste tests — one of just the tonics and one of G&T’s made with each of them (using the very neutral Beefeater as our gin).  The results? (Note: this sections has been revised from the original post) If  you’re looking to replace Schweppes with its closest natural sugar cousin, the soda-pop sweet Fever-Tree is your man (both Scweppes and Fever-Tree contain about same amount of calories per ounce, if that is of concern to you).  If something drier, lower in calories, and even more artisanal excites you, then the clear choice is Q Tonic.  The profoundly citrusy Fentiman’s comes in last, partially in taste but mostly due to its extreme cost.  It’s a nice product, but whereas I’ll be keeping a few bottle each of Fever-Tree and Q Tonic on-hand, I don’t see buying the Fentiman’s again (although I do look forward to trying their other flavors, such as Dandelion & Burdock).

The lesson here?  Want to build a better highball?  Go with natural ingredients.  Want to build a better Gin and Tonic?  You can’t go wrong with Q Tonic or Fever-Tree — it’s mostly a question of which taste you prefer.

Need a second opinion, look no further.

Esoterica: Reputedly, the quinine in tonic water makes it glow under ultraviolet light.  Something to note when you’re planning the drinks menu for your next rave.