It’s the simple highball that keeps the party going. And while simple is good, basic is not.

Photos by Aaron Job

We’re an image-conscious bunch—for better or worse—curating our homes, lives, and Instagram posts to stand out in the crowd. Why be basic when it comes to what’s really important: what we put into our bodies.

Let’s start with that old standby, the vodka tonic. Why are so many of us willing to settle for such poor quality when ordering a VT at the bar or (worse yet) when hosting friends? What you’re drinking is probably fine, but since when is “fine” something to strive for? Instead, try these inexpensive and easy upgrades to take that VT from fine to fabulous.

Make Your Tonic Tops

It’s common to call for a certain brand of vodka, but who thinks about the tonic water? I do, and you should, too. Tonic makes up approximately two-thirds of the drink by volume and has a much bigger impact on the flavor of the cocktail than the vodka does. Poor-quality tonic not only tastes bad but it tends to be loaded with enough high fructose corn syrup to leave you with a hangover.

Unfortunately, if you’re ordering from one of our area gay bars, they’re mixing your vodka with tonic from a soda gun. That’s discouraging—but, as I found, not all gun tonics are equally bad. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor of the tonic that Lush serves, so I asked assistant manager James Nelson about it. They serve the MinneSoda tonic that’s made in Minneapolis, in small batches, by the Shamrock Group.

If you’re stuck with artificial-tasting, syrupy-sweet tonic as your only option, try this pro tip: ask the bartender to mix your vodka with half tonic and half soda water. You’ll still get the flavor and body of the tonic, but the additional soda water will at least cut the bad stuff in half.

Still, the first bar that offers me the option to upgrade to a high-quality bottled tonic water, even for an additional charge, can have all of my money.

Vodka Tonic at LUSH // Photo by Aaron Job

Home Team Advantage

You control your tonic destiny when mixing cocktails at home, so it’s not hard to build a better vodka tonic with a little planning.

The global brands, like Schweppes and Canada Dry, are ubiquitous, inexpensive, and passable. The thin, slightly bitter taste is what most people think of as “tonic,” and between the two, Schweppes’ bright, balanced taste far outshines the cloying Canada Dry.

Fever-Tree is a widely available premium brand that costs a bit more, but you get natural, pronounceable ingredients (and no corn syrup) for the money. Fever Tree actually has four tonics to choose from, each designed to complement different spirits; I tried the Mediterranean Tonic, which had a full, bold flavor and an eye-catching effervescence that wouldn’t quit.

My favorite tonic in the world is Blue Henn, an artisanal tonic syrup made locally in the Twin Cities. It’s a little more expensive than other options, and there’s the extra step of needing to measure the syrup and add soda water, but its silky-smooth texture and citrus, lavender, and lemongrass notes make it superior to everything else I’ve tasted. Look for it in liquor stores.

The Vodka Variable

Don’t get me wrong—the vodka part of the vodka tonic is important, too. Although, more often than not, the “best” vodka is often just a personal preference. (By law, vodka is distilled at such a high proof that most of the impurities and flavor are removed.) Still, the distillation process imparts enough character that I do have four go-to vodka choices.

I drink Ketel One on the nights I’m feeling fancy. Its flavor is ranked as high as Grey Goose by Wine Enthusiast and costs about $10 less. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is delicious and inexpensive, a great mixing vodka for the value. Minnesota-made Prairie Organic Vodka bridges the gap between global and regional brands; has a neutral, clean, crisp taste; and supports the local economy. I recommend and regularly drink all three.

That said, J. Carver Premium Vodka is my secret weapon in the battle for home-bar supremacy. It’s distilled in Waconia from 100-percent Minnesota-grown winter wheat, which imparts a smooth, silky texture to this award-winning craft vodka that can even be sipped neat.