When customers in one of Kristen Voisey's stores reach for a bottle of artisanal tonic syrup, she claims they will regret it.
"Because they always have to come back and get more," says Voisey, owner of BYOB Cocktail Emporium in Toronto. "They can't go back to the grocery store stuff."
As more of a rum-and-Coke girl myself, I was not entirely convinced. But after sampling five varieties, from the extremely bitter Porter's Hibiscus Tonic to the citrus-infused Porter's Cardamom Orange Tonic, I was hooked.
Suddenly a gin and tonic – a drink I normally only bothered with when my father was over to visit – seemed much more appealing. And I'm not alone in this opinion: the Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic is the bestseller at BYOB, and Voisey "orders it by the pallet because it's so popular."
Casey Bee, owner and bartender at the Toronto Temperance Society, a private members club that offers "painstakingly hand-crafted, classic-inspired and cutting edge cocktails," said artisanal tonic syrups are "really, really popular … and people talk about them all the time."
When mixing up a gin and tonic, more and more people are trading in their grocery-store tonic water and turning to artisanal syrups. The syrups are not fizzy themselves, so they have to be mixed with carbonated water and come in a variety of flavours ranging from elderflower to grapefruit to hibiscus. "They all manage to do the same thing but very differently," Voisey said.
Voisey believes that the syrups, which are in the $12 to $22 range, are better than grocery-store tonic waters because they have less sugar and are "all natural … with real quinine." That's the signature bark that gives tonic its flavour – most grocery-store tonics use synthetic flavours. An average-sized bottle yields 22 drinks, according to Voisey, who advises using three-quarters of an ounce of syrup in each drink.
The number of tonic syrups available is impressive, maybe even overwhelming. Currently, BYOB offers 15 different small-batch tonics, while the TTS has about 12 different tonic syrups on hand at any given time. Between her two store locations and her website, Voisey sells about 20 bottles every day.
Bee personally likes the look of cocktails made with homemade tonics better than those using store-bought ones. When mixed into a gin and tonic, the resulting drink is not always clear, because the syrups are not being made in a factory setting.
"It's not clear because some of the colour from all of the barks and botanicals and lime come through, so it's sort of a dark colour. It looks kind of hazy," Bee said. "It's nice. You can tell it's homemade syrup and not store-bought."
The syrups can also be used in a number of other drinks beyond a classic gin and tonic. They can replace simple syrup in just about any cocktail, according to Voisey. Bee says they work well in "fruity and fun" cocktails.
"Tonic syrup helps the cocktail have more depth," Bee said. "There's just a lot more layers of flavour."