If you’re thirsty on the southern Caribbean island of Curaçao, the next Piña Colada or Blue Hawaiian is never far away. But the libation you’ll really want to sip with your toes in the sand has absolutely nothing to do with pineapple wedges or a blender. Curaçao actually has a Gin & Tonic culture that rival’s Spain’s.
So just how did a British cocktail find its way to a Caribbean paradise off the coast of Venezuela? Would-be spirit scholars will remember that gin is a derivative of genever, a juniper-flavored spirit distilled from grain that was invented in the Netherlands (and tastes like a mashup of gin and unaged whiskey). Curaçao was colonized by the Spanish at the turn of the 16th century, which resulted in the enslavement and displacement of the Arawak-speaking Indigenous people who lived there. Eventually, the island fell into the hands of the Netherlands, from which it gained autonomy in 2010. The country’s influence can be seen in Curaçao's cuisine, language and culture. That extends to bartenders who thoughtfully mix gin with tonic served in large wine goblets, with garnishes that match their flavor profiles.
“Indeed, the Netherlands is famous for making genever, but that was mostly popular among old Dutch men,” says Gabriëlla Hoop, a sales and PR coordinator for Avila Beach Hotel in Willemstad. She says that when Dutch dry gins like Rutte and Bobby’s Schiedam started winning awards a few years ago, bartenders began cozying up to the botanical booze. “Lots of Dutch locals who visit the Netherlands became aware of the trend, and tourists visiting the island started asking for them.
At Zest Beach Café and Zest Mediterranean, restaurants on the beach at Jan Thiel Beach in Willemstad, the G&T menu is printed on a repurposed Hendrick’s gin bottle and boasts around 32 combinations. Most eclectic are Macaronesian white gin from the Canary Islands—made with local ingredients and filtered through volcanic rocks—mixed with San Pellegrino tonic, mint and laurel; Mombasa Club dry gin (inspired by the private social club in Zanzibar), also mixed with San Pellegrino tonic and topped with star anise and orange; and Uppercut dry gin from Belgium, a heady and herbaceous spirit distilled with damiana leaf, strawberry leaf, licorice root and vervain, which partners up with Fever-Tree Indian tonic, licorice and apple.
With menus all over the island peppered with creative fizzy combinations, it’s pretty surprising that there haven’t been any distilleries making gin. This changed recently as Luke’s Cocktail Bar launched a new locally produced spirit called Henry’s gin. Made at the Chobolobo distillery (the same one that makes curaçao liqueur), it uses local herbs as well as classic botanicals. You can find it at liquor stores on the island and in several bars and restaurants.
“Gin is a heavy feature on my menu,” says Luke’s general manager Luuk Gerritsen. “Curaçao tends to go for quantity over quality, a trend that’s slowly changing for the better.”
And don’t forget, according to Gerritsen, gin is healthy—reputed to be good for skin, bones, kidneys, arthrosis and sore throat, and to protect you from malaria—and is lower in calories than beer.
Not that gin fans needed another reason to drink it. The G&T menu at Koraal Rooftop Terrace runs 12 options deep, including one with Tanqueray No. Ten and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic garnished with grapefruit and white pepper, another with Gin Mare from Spain topped with 1724 tonic, basil, lemon and rosemary, and one with G’Vine Floraison from France, over which Fentimans botanical tonic is poured and finished with lemongrass and lemon.
Schooner Bar at Avila Beach Hotel started offering a Gin & Tonic menu two years ago, including a G&T happy hour on Wednesdays, all mixed with Fever-Tree tonic. The Cucumber G&T uses Hendrick’s gin and is garnished with cucumber slices and black pepper, the Lime starts with Bombay Sapphire gin adorned with lime and fresh mint, the Orange and Cloves tops Bobby’s gin with citrus slices and whole cloves, and the Basil and Lemon has The Botanist gin as its base.
Sander Riem, the manager and bartender at Koraal, agrees that the hype and popularity of gin over the past decade in Europe (especially in the Netherlands, Belgium and England) has stirred bartenders on the island. “A lot of different possible combinations of garnishes, herbs and tonics are making it interesting for drinkers,” he says. “That’s why gin is sort of everybody’s friend.”
And the tropical setting is also partially responsible for the uptick in the G&T. “The island, atmosphere and climate make it a perfect spot,” says Riem. “It’s not a drink for quick drinkers. It’s meant to be enjoyed with some nice company and where you relax and savor the moment.”