Kerry van der Jagt pulls-up a bar stool to partake in a national obsession.
There are few moments in travel that can't be brightened by a drink in hand, and if that drink is a gin and tonic, better still. Sorry, gin tonic, as I've learnt to say since arriving in Spain. Unlike the rest of the world, where G&Ts are ordered with a sound akin to spitting out lemon pips, Spaniards murmur gin tonic with a smooth and sexy lilt.
I'm in a tiny laneway bar in Oviedo in northern Spain and it's almost midnight as Jose the bartender slides the gin tonic across the counter. The glass is a balloon, as large as a goldfish bowl, with boulders of ice and thin curls of lime bobbing about.
With the first taste there's the rush of juniper, the bite of quinine, the lingering hint of ginger. Glass in hand, I wander to the window and peer out at the late-night revellers walking past, the orange glow of street lamps throwing long shadows across the cobblestones just as the bells off Oviedo cathedral begin to sing.
In recent years, Spain has fallen head over heels for this blend of grain and fizz. The renaissance started in bars such as Bobby Gin in Barcelona and Madrid's Gin Club, moving north to the Basque Country, Asturias and Galicia.
For my second drink Jose hands me a menu, a wish list containing more than 45 varieties, from the locally brewed Gin Mare, with hints of rosemary, thyme, olive oil and basil, to the Prohibition-style Ransom Old Tom Gin. "In Spain we have more than 150 brands of gin," Jose says. Another mind-boggling statistic, in a land best known for cider, sangria and San Miguel, is that Spain is now the world's biggest consumer of premium gin.
After deciding on the French-brewed G'Vine Floraison (€10 [$15]), with elements of cardamom and ginger, my next decision is the "T" component, where tonic flavoured with everything from orange blossom and lavender to geranium and thyme is on offer. Like food and wine matching, the skill lies in knowing which tonic goes with which gin.
Jose suggests a simple, premium tonic will work best with the floral tones of the G'Vine. Some bartenders add a garnish or two, such as a slice of cucumber, a wedge of star anise, a sprinkling of juniper berries or pink peppercorns, but Jose prefers to keep his simple. The next important component is the ice. Not for the Spaniard, small wimpy cubes that melt on first contact, rather humongous, rock-hard boulders, available from any service station across the country.
The final component is the glass itself. Like a good red wine, a gin tonic is all about the nose of the complex botanicals (as many as one dozen) that go into the gin's production. The only way to appreciate such arresting aromas is to take a big whiff.
With the big decisions out of the way, I sit back and watch the master at work. First he selects a glass, scrupulously looking for any imperfections. Once judged sound, he fills the chilled glass with six or seven cubes of ice before peeling slivers of rind from a fresh lime. The peel is then held between thin metal tongs, twisted to release the essential oils, rubbed around the rim and insides of the glass and finally, dropped onto the ice. Gin is then added, before the glass is tilted and the tonic poured gently to preserve its effervescence. The entire mix is then given a soft stir.
And so my obsession begins. Over the coming days, travelling across northern Spain from Santiago de Compostela to San Sebastian, I morph into a night owl. While my days are filled with cathedrals and galleries, it is the nights I anticipate, slinking off each evening with a lover's eagerness. From swanky specialist gin joints to hotel lobby bars and tiny family-owned taverns, I discover they all know how to mix a mean G&T. Sorry - gin tonic.
The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.
Emirates has a fare to Madrid for about $2040 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Madrid (8hr 5min). See emirates.com.
Insight Vacations offers an 11-day tour of northern Spain, starting and finishing in Madrid, from $2550 a person including transfers, accommodation, daily breakfasts, hotel and restaurant dinners, tour director and guided city tours. See insightvacations.com.au.
THREE COUNTRIES, THREE NATIONAL DRINKS
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PIMM'S NO. 1
Invented in 1840 by James Pimm, a London oyster bar owner, this cocktail of Pimm's, lemonade, fresh fruit and mint is the perfect summer drink, best enjoyed at the races or a garden party.