There are a lot of new small-batch gins these days. Seeing an imbalance in the marketplace — and the cosmos, perhaps? — actor and bartender Tom Richter set out to make tonic. Tomr’s Handcrafted Tonic Syrup may sound like an old-timey purported panacea sold at county fairs (and looks a little like one, too, in its apothecary-style flask), but it’s actually a boldly flavored real quinine tonic, made with natural and organic ingredients, and sold in extremely small batches to bars and restaurants in the New York area, as well as online. If you find it curing what ails you, that’s purely coincidental. Richter explains how he got started.
Have you always been interested in booze?
Well, I spent a life in the theater, as most people in the restaurant industry in New York do. I had some good success with it: I’ve been on Broadway and had small roles in films and TV. I worked in a lot of restaurants, and as a wine director in a few places in the city, so my palate just got really souped up. I found that the most ordered cocktail is a gin and tonic and I wanted a better gin and tonic. I had no intention of ever starting a company.
When did you get serious about it?
I searched online and found a bunch of recipes and I tried them and they all kinda sucked, but there was really neat qualities about each. For the recipe, I started combining them and tweaking them and it really didn’t take too long because all of a sudden, I just hit one combination and it was like, “Whoa! This hits my palate right.” I used it in [a friend’s] bar and it was really popular. People kept saying, “You should bottle it.”
What’s the biggest myth about gin and tonics?
It’s a drink that’s ordered all year. It’s not just a summer thing.
Where do you sell your tonic?
Freemans, Hearth, Il Buco, Swift Hibernian Lounge, the John Dory, and now the Beagle, where I work. It just keeps growing. It’s been a crazy ride. It’s at Whole Foods in Paramus, New Jersey, and online at KegWorks.
Now, the tonic comes as a syrup, is that right?
That is correct. You use one ounce with two ounces of gin and top it off with club soda. That cuts it and carbonates it to the proper dilution.
Bars often try to make their own tonic. Why is it so hard to do well?
It’s a pain in the ass. Really, truly. It’s all about proper balance of the ingredients. I really mess around with it. Looking back, it doesn’t seem that it was a long time, but it was a couple of months of messing around with it to get it right. It’s a tricky thing to balance. What’s the difference between your tonic and, say, Schweppes’?
Those guys use quinine extract — quinine is the bitter part — so there are very low particulates in it. Then they use high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar. I use soda siphons at home for my carbonation, and it comes out of the soda siphon like foam. It’s because there are so many chunks of stuff in there that it just fizzes up right away. And, to me, the chunks of stuff are what give the flavor and the richness and the mouthfeel.
Are you annoyed when people use your tonic with vodka instead of gin?
If you want it with vodka, more power to you. To me, vodka is a flavorless, colorless liquid that I wish Americans would quit drinking. That’s my feeling about vodka. You know how snotty all us bartenders are. I don’t like mixing it in cocktails because I want to taste the booze. For me, I designed the tonic so that gin actually completes the flavor. But gin is the first flavored vodka, if you want to get technical about it.
Do you have any plans to make anything other than tonic?
You know, it’s funny because that’s a really common question and if you only knew how much it was just to start a company — it’s just comical how long it takes. Within a year, we’re going to be up and running to the point where I can start more developmental stuff. I grew up in Minnesota and when my dad was little, he used to fire up the stills during Prohibition, so I might have access to one of the last remaining family stills. I would love to actually do some distillation. Before that, though, I’m probably going to work on bitters. I know everybody’s doing bitters. I just want to do it for my own shits and giggles.
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