- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
In college, a gin and tonic was the drink I ordered on Friday nights out with friends — it was often strong, quick for me to order and easy for the bartenders to make. Those familiar cocktails of my early 20s, however, are nothing like the half-dozen gin and tonic combinations on the menu at El Chipirón, the relatively new Spanish restaurant on South Lamar Boulevard. And thank heaven for that.
The bubbly, botanical elixirs piled high with fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and even flower petals in tall, spotless wineglasses are just about the best things I’ve had this year. El Chipirón has imported this tradition straight from Spain, as it has done with its food menu of tapas and pinchos.
Spain is the home country of El Chipirón’s owner and chef, Pablo Gomez, and bars and restaurants there have long been making these cocktails with fresh, seasonal additions and often Spanish-produced gin and tonic. Gin and tonics are the only drinks that some places in Spain will serve, he says; although El Chipirón offers other cocktails as well as wine and beer, the Spanish-style G&Ts constitute the bulk of the cocktail program.
So far, the decision to feature them so heavily has paid off.
“We’ve converted a lot of people into gin and tonic drinkers,” Gomez says. “We have to ease them into it because they see gin as easy and fresh, and they want something different. Or they see gin as very polarizing. People think of gin and tonics as the drink that smells like cologne. But once you explain it a little bit, give them a little taster, then they love them.”
The initial gin and tonic menu at the bright and modern El Chipirón — the centerpiece of which is a beautiful light-colored marble bar — has been created primarily by Gomez. Future recipes, however, will come from bartenders like Chris Scales, who now understands what his boss means when he says he wants a Spanish-style gin and tonic.
Examples at the restaurant include the Cumbersome (Hendrick’s gin, elderflower tonic, cucumber and flower petals) and Tranquilo (Alkemist gin, Mediterranean tonic, cucumber, mint, lime, peppercorn and cardamom). Gomez thought them up by first deciding what gin to start with, which sets the groundwork for the type of tonic used and the additional ingredients going in.
“One thing we take into account when coming up with a gin and tonic are what kind of botanicals are in the gin, and depending on what gin it is, how much alcohol it has, if it’s more mineral or acidic, that’s when we decide what kind of tonic we use,” he says. “Then, what kind of flavors we want to enhance in both. For instance, if we are using the Gin Mare, it has a lot of spices like basil, it has a subtle flavor, not a big punch in the mouth, so it would go nice with basil.”
The ice and the red wine glasses the drinks are served in are just as integral. Even how the bartender prepares the cocktail plays a role: Scales demonstrated on a recent visit that he slowly pours the tonic into the carefully tilted glass to make sure the drink stays fizzy. The gas in the bubbles pushes the aroma up and into your nose, he says; the shape of the glass has a similar effect.
All those small, seemingly inconsequential details result in a bubbly, aromatic cocktail that draws out new flavors and scents as the fruits, herbs and vegetables infuse and blend with the gin while you drink it and as the ice, a giant cube, slowly melts.
“You can tell the difference between the very first sip and the very last,” Gomez says.
His gin and tonic program hasn’t grown quite as quickly as he’d hoped it would, in part because some of the gins he is trying to import from Spain aren’t regularly brought into Texas. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma also slowed the import process last month and delayed the launch of El Chipirón’s wine menu. But Gomez promises that having Spanish spirits like the aforementioned Gin Mare, made in a small fishing town outside Barcelona, will strengthen the program.
Having a little bit of a Texas flavor doesn’t hurt, either. Enter the Tejano. At $14, it’s the most expensive gin and tonic on the menu, but for good reason. The drink has Dripping Springs Gin, Mediterranean tonic, rosemary, orange, lime, star anise, peppercorn and one surprise: a glass filled with smoke. (Make sure you have your phone handy if you want an Instagram photo; it dissipates fast.) Gomez created the Tejano to offer Spanish tradition with Texas flair.
“‘Tejano’ means ‘Texan’ in Spanish, and we wanted to work with flavors that are very familiar to Texans, that feel like home,” he says. “We used ingredients that would bring out a kind of barbecue flavor and chose a flavor-neutral gin to enhance it.”
And once you’ve finished with your gin and tonic? Some customers don’t let any piece of the cocktail — even the remaining bits of fruit and vegetables — go to waste.
“I’ll look up from the bar and see someone stick their fork in the glass and get the leftovers,” Scales said.