Gin & Tonic in Saigon

The day was beastly hot, not long ago. I had been stumbling through the narrow alleyways (the hems) of “The Pham” keeping track of all the continuous changes and deciding if they’re good or bad. It’s part of my job as a self-appointed arbiter of taste. I was sweating bullets and much in need of blessed relief. Now if you’ve lived long anywhere in the tropics you know that there is a great and universal constant that offers such relief. It’s more pleasant than shade and cheaper than air-con. It’s more reliable than rain and you don’t need an umbrella, though sometimes you get one with it. I’m talking about the venerable and curiously refreshing Gin & Tonic.

 I was navigating the very narrow alley where Le Pub’s back door used to offer entry and egress until they padlocked it to keep passers-by from traipsing through the kitchen. Six steps south of the forbidden portal lay the inviting Bread & Butter bar and its upscale upstairs café. I staggered in and heaved myself up a tall stool at the end of the bar. Behind said bar stood Dan Carey, owner-operator and sympathetic ear to overheated wayfarers. He looked at me through his Maryland-born rock-n-roll eyes and already knew my need. But I voiced it anyway. “G&T” says I. “Tall.” Dan deftly filled a tall, slender glass with shimmering ice and squeezed a wedge worth of tangy lime juice over it. He poured an honest measure of honest gin, a thing we still can’t always count on in the town. He topped it off with pleasingly bitter tonic water and set the already sweating glass before me. Not only was I about to imbibe liquid comfort, but in simply contemplating this crystal clear column of restoration I was imbibing a tradition of tropical life that goes back over 150 years.

 To be sure the G&T isn’t limited to the tropics. Indeed, according to the novel Restaurant at the End of the Universe, it’s all over the cosmos. But it is a child of the tropics, and it has been a mainstay of elbow benders in Saigon for generations. Back in the early 1990s it was the only mixed drink I could find here. All else alcoholic was either warm beer or straight whiskey. So whence came this perfect balance of taste, aroma and ability to slake a tropic thirst? We start in India.  There the army of the British East India Company was battling malaria. At the time, the only remedy for the dread disease was quinine, an extract of the bark of the cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis), native to the Andean region of South America. It is quinine that gives your tonic water its distinctive bitter flavor. However, as the Brits soon learned, in medicinal quantities the stuff is too bitter to swallow by itself. So the wise British sawbones added a goodly slug of London Dry to make the medicine go down.

And this begs the question what, exactly, is gin? It was invented by Dr. Franciscus Sylvius of Amsterdam about 400 years ago. He meant it to be a treatment for such aches and pains as gout and lumbago. He concocted it by flavoring neutral grain spirits with botanical essences of such as coriander, cassia, anise, etc. But the most important is juniper berry (Juniperus communis), and all gins to this day must use it as the chief essence. It’s what gives gin its distinctive, almost pine-like, aroma. In Dutch juniper is “jenever.” Hence, the English “gin.” And of course while there are a few styles of gin, the most popular is London Dry.

I’m sure you already know what ice is, and you’ll know that lime is a citrus. But I will tell you that the variety most often used in our drink is the Citrus aurantifolia, often known as “bartender’s lime.” And while we can justly thank the Tommies (for some reason they don’t like the term Limey) for our basic cocktail, it is thought that it was the Yanks who perfected it with “ice and slice.” Evidence for this is displayed in any proper pub in the UK. Order gin and tonic and that’s all you get: tonic and gin. But don’t worry here in Saigon where people know how to do it right. And there is one more little improvement on the tropical thirst quencher that we can thank a Yank for. Step into Dan’s bar in the Bread and Butter. Belly up or take a seat. Then tell Dan that you would like a “Trip to London.” He’ll set you up with a good and proper G&T and a Huda beer back. It just keeps getting better. Cheers!

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