At last count, Minnesota was home to no fewer than 15 micro distilleries, with more on the way. You can enjoy artisan aquavit, vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, rye, rum, even a Minnesota-made grappa. So why are you mixing all these carefully crafted spirits with grocery store juices, sodas, and tonics?
As lovers of a good gin & tonic, that was the question friends Kari Madore and Julia Brosz asked themselves. But being creative types, instead of shrugging their shoulders and making do with the least objectionable of the commercially made products, they decided to create their own tonic. After much research, and lots of experimenting and taste testing, they debuted Blue Henn Tonic Syrup, a mixer made with as much care as the local spirits that inspired it.
There are lots of ways to make tonic, and while Madore and Brosz don’t want to reveal any proprietary secrets, they will divulge that they start the process by steeping bark from the cinchona tree, native to Peru. The bark is very bitter, and contains quinine, which, if you remember your high school history, was used by British soldiers in colonial India to combat malaria. Along the way, some enterprising Brit figured out that mixing quinine with sugar and carbonated water made the bitter medicine more palatable. And what the heck, why not add some gin and make it a party? Thus the venerable G & T was born.
While the drink is still as popular as ever, the tonic has changed dramatically over the years. Most mass produced versions do not use cinchona bark (so don’t contain any quinine), but rely on artificial flavors to get that astringent quality and on high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. Blue Henn takes tonic back to its roots. In addition to the traditional cinchona bark, the small batch tonic is made with organic herbs, natural citrus oils and cane sugar. The resulting concentrated syrup needs to be diluted, typically with soda water, for use in drinks. The flavor profile is much more complex than a commercial tonic; there is a nice, warm spiciness along with floral notes, that combined with the sweetness from the cane sugar, nicely balance the bitterness of natural quinine. And here’s a fun party fact: the quinine in cinchona bark fluoresces under black light.
In addition to doing their homework and researching everything they could find out about tonic, the development process also included many, many trips to the grocery store where Madore and Brosz would hunt for ingredients that sparked their interest, take bags full of herbs home and experiment with different combinations. Using friends and family as their taste testers/guinea pigs, they eventually hit on the final recipe. Now that they're producing the tonic in larger quantities, many of the ingredients are sourced through the same wholesalers that local co-ops buy from. The cinchona bark comes from South America.
Brosz and Madore who met as students at the U of M College of Design, put their artistic backgrounds to use designing the bottles and labels for the tonic. And although they recently expanded into a new commercial kitchen in Minneapolis that they share with two other craft beverage makers, the duo, with help from their husbands, still do all the chopping, measuring, steeping, and mixing themselves. They also bottle the finished product, label it (you’ll find the brew date and batch number stamped on each bottle) and box it up. Until this past August, they delivered it personally, but are now working with a distributor, expanding to markets outside the metro area. “We pull weekend marathons, starting the process on Friday night, then working through Saturday and Sunday to fill a pallet for the distributor,” says Madore. While currently busy scaling up production for their expanded market, they are already thinking about how to build on the success of their tonic.
You’ll find Blue Henn tonic behind the bar at establishments around the metro, and it’s available at most major liquor stores. A 16-ounce bottle sells for $17.99 and will make 21 drinks, give or take. The company’s website and Facebook page list upcoming events and demos where you can meet the makers. They’ll be at Naughty & Nice Night Out on Thurs., Nov. 12.
Here’s a recipe from Madore and Brosz for a BH Margarita (makes one drink):
1.5 ounces tequila
1.5 ounces Blue Henn Tonic Syrup
Juice of one lime and one orange
Sugar (to coat the rim of the glass)
Put sugar on a plate; dip a glass in a bowl of water, then into sugar to coat the rim. Combine the tequila, tonic and citrus juices over ice in glass; stir to combine.