For Jordan Silbert, the idea to create new tonic water came in a flash of “gin-induced inspiration” one warm summer night in Brooklyn.
While sipping on cocktails with a group of friends, Silbert realized his teeth started to feel sticky. They were drinking “high-quality gin,” he recalls, but “with lousy tonic water.” Silbert reached for a nearby Sprite to compare the ingredient breakdown. He discovered the percentage of high-fructose corn syrup in the soda was almost identical to the bottom-shelf tonic mixed in the highball.
“That was the ‘aha’ moment,” Silbert says. So began his quest to create an equally high quality tonic, one that’s worthy of its natural mixological mate, gin.
Twelve years later, Silbert’s independent label, Q, is among the most prominent players in an expanding artisanal soda categeory. The Brooklyn upstart presently produces club soda, orange soda, grapefruit, lemon, ginger ale and a cola flavor that’s unconventionally spelled with a ‘k.’ Now, the company is poised to launch its lastest varietal: Q Ginger Beer.
But, it all started with tonic. And, Silbert’s mission to find gin’s perfect match began almost immediately — after the previous night’s effects had properly dissipated, of course.
To make tonic, you first need quinine, the alkaloid element that gives the bubbly water its distinct flavor. Though synthetic versions exist, the chemical occurs naturally in the bark of the South American cinchona tree. Once Silbert found a reliable supplier for that stuff, he started mixing up test batches in his spare time. It soon became a serious hobby. He spent four years tinkering with the recipe. Even after moving his modest tonic-making operation out of his home and into a small local soda plant, capable of producing a few hundred cases, the whole pursuit was still mostly geared toward his own personal use. “More of a lark than anything,” he says. Until, that is, several of New York’s up-and-coming bartenders caught wind of the product.
Related: What Is Tonic Water Made From?
At the time, emerging craft cocktail bars were looking to re-create ingredients in a more fresh, healthy and artisanal manner to elevate cocktail programs. Tonic water represented a glaring gap in quality behind the bar, so Q tonic quickly caught the attention of luminaries like Jim Meehan at Gramercy Tavern and Sasha Petraske at Milk and Honey.
Things got really serious when Simon Ford (who was working for Plymouth Gin at the time), stepped in to the conversation, providing the pivotal platform for Q’s leap into mainstream production. After having tried the Q in a cocktail at Little Branch, Ford had reached out to Silbert to source several cases for a drink he was making at a large food and drink event at Rockefeller Center. At the event, a reporter for the New York Times spotted Q and proceeded to publish an article on the product the following week.
From there, the calls started to roll in. “800 places around the world wanted it. I had calls from Japan,” Silbert says. “I had to say no to virtually all of them, except for a few fancy restaurants in NYC that I could deliver to by car.”
Bolstered with a sense of confidence, Silbert eventually left his day job, and for the next four years, the biggest challenge was simply keeping up with demand. The public was hungry for a better tonic option, and despite its premium price tag, sales grew steadily. Now, Q tonic can be found in over 6,000 accounts, from major grocery and liquor stores to bars and restaurants across the country. “I knew Q tonic was succeeding not because of genius, or scale, but because it was simply a better product,” he says. “People drank it and said ‘that’s the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had.’ ”
What makes Q different than existing bottom shelf tonic options is the recipe was formulated specifically to pair with gin. Throughout the testing phases, Silbert would pair early recipes with various kinds of New American gin to make sure it wouldn’t overwhelm the liquor’s botanicals. Q features lower sugar content, a slight but noticeable bitter twang from real quinine, and a heavy emphasis placed on a strong level of carbonation, so gin and tonics will have a boastful and lasting fizz.
Once the tonic took off, retail outlets and restaurants started to demand more flavors. “Places would say, ‘We love your tonic water, but it’s embarrassing to be pouring Schweppes ginger ale next to your stuff,’” he says. Instead of jumping on the opportunity, Silbert says the “moment of genius” was holding off on expansion for the first four years, until production and distribution systems were streamlined, to avoid burnout.
Now, seven flavors later, Silbert is especially proud of his latest creation, Q Ginger Beer, which took more than 38 recipes over the course of 10 months to nail down the winning taste. “Our Q has a lot more ginger. It’s really spicy,” he says. “It also has more carbonation, and it’s less sweet,” which makes it perfect for mixing up in a bubbly Dark ‘n Stormy or Whiskey Buck.
Silbert says he’s focusing on the ginger beer launch for the moment, but feels optimistic for the future of the artisan soda category as a whole. As the options on grocery store shelves start to grow, “it’s only going to get better and better,” he says. “It’s a good thing for people to have options.”
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