Tequila and Tonic
Bartender Hallie Arnold Making Ginned Tequila
Mixology is modified alchemy: the transmutation of various potions into the ultimate elixir—also known to us as a cocktail. (Bonus points if it’s done by a mysterious craftsman in a darkened room.) So when we heard Hallie Arnold of Charleston’s The Grocery was making gin from tequila, we didn’t cry heresy. We just headed South to see what this practitioner of the alco-alchemical arts was stirring up.
It started when Arnold was bitten by the gin bug. “I read about bartenders making their own gins in Portland,” she remembers. “It sounded like a fun idea.” Like any practiced bartender, or one who’s learned better, Arnold put the idea through the house-made-efficiency test: “First, is it worth doing? Second, if I do pursue it, will it be better than what I can buy? And, third, is the end product a good representation of what I like to do?” House-distilled gin, alas, did not pass. House-infused “gin” passed with flying colors.
The tequila-to-gin hopscotch came after Arnold realized that while she could never make a gin she preferred over her favorite, Hendrick’s, she could infuse blanco tequila with gin flavors. And that’s basically how gin’s made, redistilling a lighter-bodied, typically grain-based spirit in the presence of a varied and often juniper-assertive assortment of herbs, spices, and citrus. The fact that tequila and gin play botanical tendencies off similar weights means that it was actually a sensible, non-Frankensteinian idea for Arnold to graft gin flavors onto a tequila body.
The end goal was not to muffle her base spirit. “By adding all of the components of gin, I was hoping to bring out the earthy botanical-ness of tequila,” she says. Starting with a 100 percent agave blanco tequila base, Arnold infused “a very basic mix of herbs that I typically taste in gin: juniper, orange peel, and lavender.” The result got her close, but not there. “After a few weeks of experimentation and research, we added coriander, lemongrass, and grapefruit peels,” she says. Reaching the right flavor profile, however, meant blending carefully. “I infuse every aspect of the ‘ginned’ tequila separately, and blend it all back together separately,” kind of like a blended Scotch. The process takes just under three weeks, with each infusion sitting for about 18 days before the “gin”—which Arnold calls and considers tequila—is born.
We tasted the end product in one of Arnold’s favorites, the Tequila and Tonic, made with Charleston local Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic. “I am in love with the fresh lemongrass flavors in the Jack Rudy,” says Arnold, who uses it to finish tonics the way a chef might use salt. “It’s so bright and refreshing,” and layers well with the lemongrass in the “gin,” which has bright citrus notes, alongside spice, florals, and delicate piney notes from juniper. You might call it a shortcut (if an 18 day infusing-and-blending process can indeed be considered a shortcut), but for Arnold, it’s also just another way to play with flavor delivery on a menu that clearly delights in it. There’s her “bright and zesty” grapefruit cello, infused vinegars, a seasonal blackberry-infused bourbon, even pickled beet brine in The Grocery’s rhubarb cocktail. The next closest relative to Arnold’s ginned tequila probably comes in the Death by Mimosa, with house-made orange cello standing boozily in for orange juice. “I like to play with infusions and make versions of other cocktails,” says Arnold, who’s confident enough in her cocktail and spirits rules to know when and how to alchemically break them.