Hunkered over the glowing agate-stone bar, another gin and tonic slid into my hand and I looked at the time: 1:30 am. Why does every evening in Spain carry-on so late? Three hours had vanished and we had only sampled 17 of the 200-plus gins collected on the shelves behind Diego. Both bartender and unofficial professor of the drink, famed Argentine mixologist Diego Cabrera of La Cabrera in Madrid had agreed to guide me through the Spanish obsession with G&Ts or rather, " gin tonics" (much like their lifestyle, Spaniards simplify and drop the ampersand).
Unlike the G&T in America, reduced to cocktail rubble, demoted to pathetic post-college binge beverage or the thing you order when nothing else comes to mind, the Spaniards respect the drink. Why? Diego considered the heat: "Nobody really knows the origin of the craze. Maybe because a gin tonic can refresh on hot Spanish days like few other drinks." Regardless, the Spaniards elevate the GT to art form: carefully chosen gin is paired with a new-breed tonic (or Schweppes), a complementary botanical or citrus peel added, the goblet glass stocked with boulder-size ice cubes, all prepared table-side with flair like the Bananas Foster of cocktails.
"Ginsanity" has raged through Spain the last half-decade, the drink reaching a level of national reverence that consuming one now deserves a spot on any tourist's must-do list: viewing the Prado, gorging on Jamón Ibérico, and drinking a proper GT. There is no better to place to do it than the heart of the country, Madrid.
One Night, 5 Spots in Madrid:
Arzabal: A night-time tour of Madrid's GT slingers should begin as the madrileños do: with plates of food. Arzabal offers classic tapas, but diverges from the average joint by emphasizing freshness and thoughtful preparation. The welcoming owners Alvaro and Ivan genially host guests until the last one falls out the door (usually around 3 am every night), although you can arrive as early as 8:30 pm and still enjoy a buzzy atmosphere. The bartenders prepare gin tonics with both care and flair; witness your chosen tonic slowly poured down a swizzle spoon for seamless blending into the gin.
Glass Bar and La Terraza at the Urban Hotel: Prices are Himalaya-high (expect 10-18 Euros ($13-23) per cocktail) at this fashionable hotel bar and roof terrace off the Gran Via, but sipping a libation under the stars while the city twinkles below, makes the cost palatable for at least one round. The dedicated GT menu offers 30 pairings, drawing from a collection of French, Spanish, German, American, Dutch, and of course, British gins. Try the small-batch Mombasa with lemon peel and fever-tree tonic for a revelation in refreshment.
Cock Bar: Despite its location on the fringe of the well-known gay and lesbian district of La Chueca, the "cock" bar has more to do with cocktails than its abbreviation hints. Arrive too early, and the stylized English-pub décor with high-ceilings and dark timber feels as somber as drinking with Jack Nicholson at the Overlook Hotel. But wait a few hours and the raucous, gin tonic-fueled fiesta carries on through the night in usual Spanish style.
Del Diego: Two doors down from the Cock, this establishment was also built in the 1920's, but diverges with low-slung, round-backed lounge chairs evocative of mid-century design. The space has both an urbane and down-to-earth vibe, largely emanating from the two Fernandos: a father-and-son owner and bartender duo that regularly work the bar as a team. Both Fernandos prefer classic GTs, keeping their list so trim and on-point, they don't have one. Just tell them your palate preferences and their cocktail mastery will do the rest.
La Cabrera Cocktail and Gastrobar: If you seek a one-stop coctelería hoarding a healthy share of the gins produced around the world, proceed here. In addition to the usual suspects, La Cabrera carries specialty, small-batch gins including a few from the US seldom seen even in NYC. As a bonus, the beautifully presented, haute tapas on offer can be enjoyed in a less frenetic dining scene downstairs at the funky-cool glowing agate-stone bar (just ask the bartender). Here you can peacefully pore over and pour through the 200-plus gins and 14 different tonics with a true connoisseur of the libation, Diego Cabrera.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Lauren Mowery