As we edge perpetually closer to winter, those who love the crisp refreshment of a gin and tonic to fend off the rays of the summer sun start to shift their palates toward drinks that complement the colder temperatures without sacrificing their love of gin. The Viking Martini, perhaps—a bracing mixture of dry gin with the Icelandic Bjork Birch Liqueur from Foss Distillery and a bitter, high-elevation amaro, which creates flavors bold enough to stand up to sub-zero temps. Or the Big Red, which mixes over-proof gin with grapefruit juice and cinnamon-infused simple syrup to create an autumn-rich drink that is often lit on fire before for serving. But there is cold-weather respite for die-hard lovers of the traditional G&Ts. Just hunt down a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, a herbaceous, bitter, peppery celery-based soda and use that as a cold-weather substitute for tonic.
The oddly flavored soda traces its origins to 1860s New York City, where the drink rode the wave of popularity around “superfood” health tonics. Celery tonic, it seems, helps calm the stomach and bowels. Somewhere along the way, the canned soda became a staple in the coolers of most NYC delis because it pairs so nicely with fatty foods like pastrami. And today, with the recent surge in popularity around the medicinal benefits of botanical-driven sodas and spirits, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray is having a welcome resurgence. Celery—what most consider to be a “lesser” vegetable, passible as garnish for a Bloody Mary but not much else—is ready for prime time, and gin, a spirit whose flavor is derived from the artful mix of botanicals like juniper, angelica, and cardamom, makes it the perfect pairing with this soda.
As with traditional G&Ts, most London Dry styles nicely complement the herbaceous, bitter flavor of the soda. But to take this G&T to the next level, search out barrel-aged gins, a process that darkens the spirit and denotes characteristics of whiskey—but without crowding out the elements that make gin so welcoming. Take Captive Spirit’s Big Gin series, which offers two options. Built off their London Dry base, which uses grains of paradise and Tasmanian pepperberry along with traditional ingredients like juniper and coriander, their Bourbon Barreled Big Gin introduces a bit of marmalade and a welcome swirl of spice to counteract the smooth gin base, bold enough to stand up to the complexity of Dr. Brown’s. But if you crave a big, bold play on tradition, go for Peat Barreled Big Gin. The base spirit rests for four months in wooden single-malt barrels that adds unmistakable earthiness akin to a high-end scotch, a mixture of warm spices, bitter orange peel, and a hint of resinous wood that brings complex flavors of the celery soda into conversation with the spirit, one that lengthens as the ice melts.
Of course, adding vegetables to gin isn’t new. The stellar Hendrick’s Gin out of Scotland, made with cucumbers and Damask rose, still ranks as one of the most crisp and refreshing versions of this popular spirit. And it goes nicely with cucumber sodas (which, yes, is also a thing). But for colder climates, partnering a woody, aged gin with the Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray will hold you over until spring breaks—or until a crafty distiller starts adding pounds of celery to a future barrel-aged release. Hell, it might even push out traditional G&Ts forever.