The Svengali

This is a very simple cocktail recipe for my current favourite summer drink, which came about during the course of working on a script for a magic show (actually, more of a play about magic, but that doesn’t matter) with my friend Alex. So, its magic origins seem to make it appropriate for the circumstances. We’re still hoping to put on the show/play, so I won’t say much about it as we’d like it to be a surprise when we do; but, suffice to say, it’s set in the 1930s and, in one scene, gin is involved.

I had scripted a line in which the protagonist requests a mixer for his gin and, not unreasonably I had thought, I had opted for “tonic”. My mother, on the other hand, took great exception to this when reading an early draft of the script over Christmas. She confidently declared that her parents never drank gin and tonic and that it really wasn’t a “thing” until much later. Since she was (just) around in the 1930s, I thought I’d better pay attention and elect a less anachronistic mixer.
(My subsequent researches have cast doubt upon my mother’s assertion: it seems that G&Ts were in fact very popular during World War II and Winston Churchill once declared that “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” By then, however, I’d rewritten the relevant line and come up with the following drink. And, in any event, it’s generally easier not to argue with one’s mother.)
“So,” I inquired, “what did they drink?” Her response was less confident but, after some consideration, she said that she had a reasonably clear recollection of them drinking “Gin and It”. My subsequent researches confirmed, this time, that she was probably correct as such a drink did indeed exist: the “It” was a common abbreviation for “Italian vermouth” which tended to be the sweeter (reddish) version of the dry vermouth typically produced in France and used for martinis.
This intrigued both me and Alex as, coincidentally, we had recently started making our own sweet vermouth (oh! The larks the two of us get up to). Vermouth is a much-misunderstood drink and, if your only experience of it is swigging from the room-temperature bottle of Noilly Prat that’s been sitting at the back of your great aunt’s drinks cupboard for decades, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s pretty ghastly stuff. Decent and freshly opened vermouth, on the other hand, particularly when served chilled, can be marvelous. It’s a fortified wine, so it doesn’t go off as quickly as wine, but neither does it last as long as a spirit. And it’s flavoured with all manner of herbs – of which wormwood must be one in order for it to be called “vermouth” – and, in the case of sweet (or Italian) vermouth, caramel. We think we’ve got a pretty cracking (and, of course, highly confidential) recipe for our own   vermouth; but that’s not what’s important for present purposes: any sweet vermouth will do.
The trouble with just mixing gin and vermouth to make a “Gin and It” is that you get a pretty short drink: essentially you’ll end up with something like a sweet gin martini. Which is jolly tasty, but not what one necessarily wants to quaff in large measures on a warm summer’s evening: the G&T is to be preferred on such occasions as a longer drink.
So the obvious solution (to me at least – I’m not aware of this having been widely tried previously), was to aim for the best of both worlds: the complexity of flavours offered by the short drink, with the quaffability of the long drink. Hence, a long and short (or Svengali) cocktail.
Assume you were going to make a double gin and tonic; so, get some ice, some gin, and however much tonic you’d usually use. But, rather than making a double, pour a single measure of gin and a single measure of sweet vermouth over the ice, then top up with the tonic. It’s worth giving it a mix as the vermouth tends to be denser owing to its sugar content so is liable to sink to the bottom unless you do. You can garnish with anything that complements the flavours of the vermouth, which could be a slice of orange or a herb such as rosemary.
I said that you could use any sweet vermouth, which you can. But, to me, the vermouth should be the star of the show here so, given the choice, I’d spend my money on the vermouth rather than the gin. A flavoursome vermouth such as Carpano Antica Formula or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino with a mediocre gin will give you more bang for your buck than a fancy gin and a cheap nasty vermouth (or which there are plenty).
And, if you do the maths, you’ll realise that there’s less alcohol in that than a  double G&T, so you can have several and still do card tricks. What’s not to like?
Guy Hollingworth
17 June 2021