In The Spirit

Diff’rent Strokes

A new vodka tonic from Reverie

By Tony Cross

I may have mentioned before how I never really cared for tonic water. Back when my brain stopped developing, I believe. Schweppes, Canada Dry, store brands, no tonic product was pleasing to my taste buds.

Then the market changed. Fever Tree dropped their tonic water, and it was (and still is) damn good. I was more smitten about their ginger beer at the time, but there was no denying their tonic. And then I tried a small batch of tonic syrup from Seattle, called Bradley’s Kina Tonic. In love I was. The syrup was so good! A bit complex with flavors, and unlike any other tonic drink I had ever tasted. So, of course, I had to make my own.

After a few weeks of tinkering with a base recipe, I had made what I thought was a feeble attempt at a tonic syrup. It was bitter, had baking spices, but also that citrus glow. I used lemon and grapefruit, but also added orange in the mix — I totally stole that idea from the Kina Tonic. They incorporate orange oil into their tonic, and it’s just what mine was missing. Now I had this tonic that sort of tasted like you took the Fever Tree and Kina tonics and mixed them together. A bitter marriage, if you will. I took it to market, i.e., the restaurant I bartended in, and we took it out for a test drive. It sold. The syrup was well received, and everyone was happy. That is, until I ran out on a Saturday night, then some people were not so happy.

Fast forward a few years, and my tonic syrup, TONYC, is in the actual marketplace. Local supporters wanted their own, which gave me the idea to batch it up and see if it would sell in stores. Within six months, we were on the shelf in Southern Seasons and represented by a wine distribution company. This was fantastic, but I was just starting out with our kegged cocktails, and what I really wanted to do was gin and tonic on draught.

I remember the sadness I felt as the first sip of my draught gin and tonic hit my palate four years ago. Man, oh man. It was bad. Over-carbonated, metallic and bitter to the nines, that G&T is a prime example of how you can’t just “scale up” a cocktail and put it in a keg. Doesn’t work that way. If it did, Reverie Cocktails would have a massive portfolio of draught cocktails right now. It took me a year before I debuted our Strawberry-Lavender Gin and TONYC; semi-sweet, fragrant, and a touch of bitterness. That cocktail has been our spring and summer flagship ever since. We love that cocktail.

At the end of last year, I got it in my head to try again and make a gin and tonic, but without the supporting cast of other ingredients. Just a light, crisp and bitter tonic cocktail that enthusiasts couldn’t pick apart. For a good month or so I thought about the way I wanted to tackle this drink and decided to do a vodka tonic. Crazy (to me), considering I never drink them. I ended up approaching this cocktail the same way I did with our tonic syrup years back: Make it for tonic and non-tonic lovers. Kind of a silly juxtaposition, but it worked when I made the tonic syrup back when I was behind the stick — I had converted non-tonic fans, and had regular patrons give their nod of approval.

I’m thrilled to report that our vodka-tonic is yum. Biased? Of course, but do you really think I’m going to try to plug a sub-par drink? I am definitely not smart (I found out that “spinach” doesn’t have two “n’s” in my early 30s), but I’m confident enough that the reception will be positive once it’s debuted. So far, I’ve only had a small circle of people try it.

This is what we did. We kept it simple. Good quality (and tasting) water, our TONYC syrup, and clarified orange juice. Wait. What? That’s right. I realized one day while walking my pup that I needed to incorporate oranges into the equation somehow. Whenever making a tonic drink from scratch with our syrup, the flavors pop when you express oils from an orange peel over the drink; I had to do the same when mixing it on draught. Luckily for me, my first instinct was correct, and that is never, ever the case when trying to create a carbonated drink in keg form.

You see, I got myself a centrifuge from ol’ St. Nick, and it made this whole orange thing possible. Running fresh orange juice through my centrifuge allows me to clarify the orange juice. In a nutshell, that means the juice has the solids taken out of it, allowing for a clear juice. This, in turn, means it won’t separate in the keg. It will be shelf-stable (once mixed as a cordial) and better yet, it will allow for maximum carbonation.

I’ll stop right there with the nerd talk. Point being, clarified orange juice for the win! It brought the cocktail together, the way bitters can. It’s light, crisp, bitter, and slightly rounded from the citrus. I made the first correct batch back in January and let it sit for a month, just to make sure that there weren’t any nuances to the drink that soured or fell flat. I taste-tested it while watching the Deontay Wilder/Tyson Fury fight, and it’s spot-on. And, for some strange reason, so is my memory. I guess that’s a good thing, considering I had more than two, but fewer than seven.

I chose to pair the tonic water with vodka instead of gin so that it could shine. But don’t get it twisted; it’ll do the trick with gin or rum, too. We hope to have our vodka tonic available in the myriad businesses that support us. Oh, and we’ll have those things called growlers available for delivery, too. See you soon.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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