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Why you should be ordering gin and tonics, and who's making the best ones in L.A. right now

Why you should be ordering gin and tonics, and who's making the best ones in L.A. right now
Gin Tonic Classico garnished with rosemary sticks, star anise, olives and lemon and lime slices, served at Otoño restaurant. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The invention of the gin and tonic is a little harder to romanticize than other classic drinks. It is an artifact of England’s 18th and 19th century colonial efforts in India, when soldiers mellowed out the bitter taste of their antimalarial quinine tonic with lime, sugar and their daily ration of gin.

Today’s gin and tonics retain that simple base — two essential ingredients, listed in the name — that give the drink a clean flavor and a light body. It is the perfect modern cocktail canvas, ripe for whimsy and experimentation.

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In recent years, gin and tonics have had a global resurgence, particularly in Spain and Italy, where they are served in wineglasses and adorned with all manner of fruits, vegetables and spices.

This fall, the cocktail seems to be everywhere, with Los Angeles bars devoting entire menus to the tipple, bolstering their gin and tonics with clever botanicals and homemade tonics, seasonal additions and striking new gins.

Here are four bars and restaurants making versions you should be drinking now:

Otoño

Chef Teresa Montaño drew inspiration for her Highland Park Spanish restaurant from her travels in Valencia, including a visit to the legendary paella restaurant Casa Carmela, where she fell in love with Spanish gin and tonics. At Otoño, Montaño’s Gin Tonic Classico has lemon, lime, rosemary, Spanish olive and star anise all packed into a thin-stemmed wine glass full of Gin Mare and Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic. The result is a cocktail that is subtly herbaceous and gently briny, crisp and refreshing but layered with complementary flavors. “Every detail of this drink had to bring me back to that dining room at Casa Carmela,” Montaño says, and we’re lucky she decided to take us with her. 5715 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park; (323) 474-6624; Otoño Restaurant

Terra

Eataly is a wonderland of Italian food, fresh pasta and aged vinegar, sweet cookies and bitter amari, but perhaps the most fantastical part is the rooftop restaurant Terra, with its beautiful outdoor patio, massive wood-fired grill and seasonal gin and tonics. There are four options, including yuzu tonic with grapefruit, ginger and Thai basil in the prickly sharp G&T No. 4 and elderflower tonic with blackberries, Meyer lemon and lavender in the sweet-tart G&T No. 2. The air is crisp, the crowd is happy, and as the sun sets behind Santa Monica in the distance there is little better than a gin and tonic five stories above the chaos of the Westside rush hour. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City; (213) 310-8008; Terra

Officine Brera

When the bartender sets down Officine Brera’s They Made the Gin … We Made the Tonic on the dark wood bar, you may do a double take. Instead of a wineglass stacked like a horn of plenty, it looks like a $7 well drink from the dive bar down the street, just gin and tonic and ice in a Collins glass with a wedge of lemon stuck on the rim. But this drink is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, made with St. George’s California forest-inspired Terroir gin and lead bartender Tom Costello’s homemade tonic. The tonic is designed specifically to complement that Terroir gin. It is flavored with the traditional cinchona bark and also juniper, citrus, spices and flowers aged for days until it settles into a syrup, which is strained and mixed with soda water in a precisely calibrated ratio. The specific ingredients in the tonic rotate with the seasons, Costello says, with more citrus in the summer and an extra hit of pepper in the colder months. At every time of year, the cocktail is both piney and floral, sharp but balanced, a winning argument for homemade tonic. 1331 E 6th St., Arts District; (213) 553-8006; Officine Brera

Breva

There’s no mistaking the bar at Breva, the newish restaurant at Hotel Figueroa, for anything other than a lobby bar, where two strangers flirtatiously compare reasons for being in L.A., departing flight times or ages of their children. But that shouldn’t scare locals away, especially considering the menu designed by the Tasting Kitchen’s Casey Lane and the long and interesting cocktail list, with a whole section devoted to gin and tonics. For the No. 3 cocktail, bartenders pile botanicals such as grapefruit, rosemary and balsam fir into a large wineglass before hitting it with dry ice. They then pour grapefruit tonic down the swizzle stick from high above so that it curls around the long stem and down into the glass. The tonic follows the spoon to the bottom, the bartender says, so that the bubbles come up through the botanicals and carry more of their flavor. Does this really make the drink better? Maybe. But it does make for quite a show, a perfect point of conversation for two strangers whose flights leave just a little too early the next morning. 939 S. Figueroa St., Suite No. 300, downtown; (213) 660-3006; Breva

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