A gin and tonic at FIG is unlike any other. Yes, it's served on the rocks in a tall collins glass with a wedge of lime, but it's amber colored, not clear. And then there's the flavor: complex and beguiling, it's the kind of drink that you sip and savor.
The secret is the tonic: Jack Rudy Artisan Tonic Syrup, to be precise.
Tonic water is not something most drinkers give much thought to. It's one of the most debased of all cocktail ingredients, having fallen a long way from its original form.
Tonic water began as medicine. It contained quinine, a bitter powder taken from the bark of the cinchona tree, which for centuries was the most effective treatment for malaria. In the 19th century, officers in the British Army in India made anti-malarial quinine doses more palatable by mixing them with sugar and water. And, not too long after, they improved it further by adding a little gin.
They were definitely onto something. The bitter flavor of quinine water is an excellent complement to the aromatic botanical notes of gin. Gin and tonics became the signature drinks of the British Empire. It hopped the pond somewhere around 1950 and became an American favorite, too. A perfect late-afternoon refresher on a warm day.
Unfortunately, today's tonic water — the kind blasted into your glass from a big bar gun — is an industrial blend of high fructose corn syrup, cheap aromatics, citric acid, and preservatives like sodium benzoate. High-end gins distilled with an eye toward purity and bouquet are all the rage, but it seems a little silly to spend big coin on your gin and slog it down with artificial chemical water.
And that's where Jack Rudy tonic comes in. Created by FIG's bar manager Brooks Reitz, it's handmade, small batch stuff. Note that it's tonic syrup, not tonic water: an aromatic base to which plain soda water is added when the bartender makes your drink.
Reitz first mixed up the concoction four years ago when he was general manager of Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky., one of America's most respected cocktail bars. Since arriving in Charleston two years ago and taking over the cocktail program at FIG, he's continued to perfect the recipe.
After much pleading and cajoling, I was able to wrest most of the formula from Reitz. He starts with the requisite water, sugar, and quinine, then adds "orange peel, lemongrass, clove, and allspice and—"
I thought I was about to get the secret ingredient, but he just paused and finished, "Well, a bunch of other botanicals."
Fortunately, the syrup is no longer just a secret house recipe. Last year Reitz teamed up with Matt Burt, a server at FIG, to create the Jack Rudy Cocktail Company and take the tonic syrup to a larger market.
The company (and the tonic) are named for Reitz's great-grandfather, an engineer who invented a mechanical pill counter, built a houseboat out of an old city bus, and illegally flew his plane under the Ohio River bridge on a dare. As you might expect, he was also "a renowned imbiber." Reitz named the company after his great-grandfather "in celebration of the kind of guy he was and the stuff he stood for."
To fund the production of this old-school product, they turned to an undeniably 21st-century source: Kickstarter, a website that helps creative types — artists, filmmakers, performers — leverage social networking to raise funding for projects.
It's an interesting concept. Instead of getting a share in the company and access to (hopefully) future profits, backers received small premiums, like a Jack Rudy Cocktail company T-shirt for a $25 pledge. For $50, investors got the T-shirt plus a bottle of tonic and a cocktail book. More than anything, they got the satisfaction of helping bring an ambitious new project to life.
Forget the logical business plan or slick investor pitch, Reitz says. Kickstarter "really puts the pressure on you to work your social networks, like Twitter and your e-mail contacts." Many of the backers of Jack Rudy were friends and family, but a surprising number of strangers kicked in some cash, too. On Feb. 18, Reitz and Burt achieved their goal of $3,500, and the Jack Rudy Cocktail Company was launched.
So far they're off to a promising start. In addition to FIG, they've placed their tonic syrup at Husk, and it was recently picked up by Rajat Parr, the wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group, to use at San Francisco's RN-74. Jack Rudy will be featured at the Cocktail Club, the new pre-Prohibition-inspired watering hole (from Oak Steakhouse's Steve Palmer) that is about to open on King Street. Reitz says there's now interest from one of New York's cocktail-centric restaurants and a New York City distributor, too.
Reitz and Burt aren't stopping at tonic. They're working on a line of spiced cocktail onions to dress up a Gibson and — in welcome news for classic cocktail lovers — artisan grenadine, too. And I'm not talking about those bottles of fluorescent crimson-dyed high fructose corn syrup water that are fit only for transforming Sprite into Shirley Temples, but the real stuff made from pomegranate juice and orange flower water, with the sort of complex blend of bitter, sour, and sweet that adds intrigue to grown-up drinks.
They're also working on making the products available for retail sale, which includes determining a shelf life and creating nutritional labeling for the bottles. Perhaps it will kickstart a new era of refined beverages not just in local restaurants and bars but at home cocktail parties, too.
If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle of Jack Rudy Artisan Tonic before it hits retail stores (and, if you're determined, you can contact Reitz and Burt through their website at jackrudycocktailco.com), here's Reitz's formula for a perfect gin and tonic:
• 2 oz. good gin (At FIG, they use Philadelphia's Bluecoat American Gin, which is distilled in small batches in a hand-hammered copper still)
• ½ oz. Jack Rudy Artisan Tonic Syrup
• club soda
• lime wedge
In a tall (12-ounce) collins glass, blend the gin and tonic syrup. Fill with ice, top off with club soda, and garnish with a wedge of lime. Drink in a calm, quiet, cool location, preferably shortly after coming in off a hot Charleston street.