Consider the Madeira and tonic the most surprising of Southern cocktails.
First of all, Southern? Really? After all, Madeira comes from a set of exotic islands off Morocco—a dense and rich fortified wine crafted to prevent souring when ships transported it hundreds of years ago through the tropics. Tonic water arose in Peru, first made with the bitter bark of the cinchona tree; the drink spread to India and was embraced as a treatment for malaria. (Hence, “tonic.”) Viewed through this lens, a Madeira and tonic seems as Southern as a kookaburra.
Yet there’s this: Madeira was off-loaded on Southern docks in unfathomable quantities throughout colonial times—trade winds diverted ships sailing west past the Madeira archipelago, where captains could do a final provisioning, and wiser salts stocked up on casks of the fortified wine. The transit through warm waters further improved the wine, oxidizing it and adding robustness, making it all the more desirable when it landed. Madeira even made an appearance at George Washington’s inauguration.
Tonic may be best known as the consort of gin. And while the mixer’s dalliance with Madeira isn’t as traditional, it’s pleasing in the extreme. One could mistake a tall glass of the cocktail filled with ice cubes for sweet tea, and those looking to extend a summer evening are certain to benefit by making its acquaintance.
“It’s very refreshing,” says Jerry Slater, “with lower alcohol than the gin and just a hint of salinity.” Slater added a Madeira and tonic to the lineup at the Expat, his new bistro and bar in Athens, Georgia. The drink rings in high on his cocktail list, which moves with a languorous progression from the least boozy—dubbed Suppressors—to the most, such as the high-proof old-fashioned.
Slater credits the Atlanta barmen Greg Best and Miles Macquarrie with coining the name “suppressors” for lower-alcohol drinks, around 2010. “The emphasis is on extending the drinking time, without tipping the balance too far into inebriation,” Slater says.
Indeed, we may be entering a new golden age of low-alcohol drinks—bars have been adding them as a bridge between a soft drink and a stiff drink. Meta, a Louisville cocktail bar, for instance, offers low-proof drinks at happy hour—some made with sherry and vermouth, others crafted with less liquor and more mixer, resulting in a lighter, long drink.
The simpler the recipe, the more critical the ingredients. Slater likes Broadbent Rainwater Madeira—a style named after its gentleness—which he says is “not too dry or too rich like a malmsey,” a sweeter class of Madeira. And he prefers Boylan Heritage tonic for its balance and deft touch with citrus.
The heat of summer often provokes an urge to guzzle something tall and icy, and a drink like this makes it easier to quench without consequences. As an added bonus, you get to savor a taste of the tropics and the past. That breeze tangling with the magnolia branches as you sip? Imagine it’s a trade wind gently shepherding you someplace exotic beyond measure.