The History of Tonic Water

Tonic is the world’s favorite soft drink to accompany gin. You will get the popular “G&T” in almost any bar in the world.

But when did we start mixing the two?

Let’s travel to India-or, to be more accurate, let’s travel to early 19th Century India. At this time, many British officials were stationed in the colonized country. Because malaria was rampant in tropical places, the British tried to protect themselves from the deadly fever by consuming quinine, a powder extracted from the Andean fever tree’s bark.

Yes, fever tree, like the famous Tonic brand and like the main symptom of the disease it was named after. Today we have synthetic versions of quinine, like hydroxychloroquine, which gained some notoriety in 2020 when former U.S. president Trump hailed the drug as a cure for the coronavirus. 

The Andean Tree

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However, quinine was first discovered as a remedy for malaria in the 17th Century. Legend says a Spanish noblewoman, the Countess of Cinchona, sick with the fever, was given a mixture of other plants and the bark from the Andean tree by Jesuit priests and miraculously recovered soon after. The cure was named “cinchona” after her. Quinine is extracted from the bark of the Andean tree and is an alkaloid that tastes extremely bitter.

Of course, this was the story told by the Spanish. Today, we know that the Indigenous peoples of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador showed the tree to the Spanish Jesuits. We cannot say for sure how long the remedy has been known to them before the Europeans claimed their discovery for themselves. What we know for sure is that the Andean tree has saved millions of lives by now and has been established as a cure for malaria as soon as the 1640s in Europe. We think of malaria as a tropical disease home to regions like India, but the fever was widespread in Europe as well, even until the beginning of the 20th Century!

King Louis XIV of France used the drug to cure his fevers, and they even distributed it to the public in Italy. England, of all nations, was very skeptical when it came to the new mysterious cure, but at the end of the 17th Century, British people also used quinine. The Andes became the “pharmacy of the world” due to the high demand for quinine from Europe, and therefore, the tree became scarce. 

Expanding the Miracle Cure

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This brings us back to the 19th Century: As the Europeans in the colonies were terrified of malaria and quinine became more and more valuable, the British succeeded in the challenging quest to plant the fever tree in India to avoid importing large amounts of the drug. Because quinine is so bitter, the colonists mixed the remedy with some sugar and soda, creating the first tonic water. 

By the way: The first carbonated water was produced by a man called J. J. Schweppe, by dissolving sulfuric acid and chalk in water. Yes, the same Schweppe who founded Schweppes, one of the most popular tonic water brands today.

From the 1850s on, quinine was not only used to treat malaria but also to prevent it. By this time, the British in India alone used 700 tons of fever tree bark every year. However, even though British people in India most likely enjoyed a G&T from time to time, the tonic was mixed with anything available, be it gin, whiskey, wine, and really anything to make the bitter quinine more palatable. 

The Commercialization of Tonic

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The first commercial tonic water was finally patented in 1858 by Erasmus Bond, owner of Pitt & Co. in Islington. Still, it was rather marketed as a digestive than a fever remedy and probably already contained an insufficient amount of quinine to treat malaria. 

The first known record of a G&T was published in the “Oriental Sporting Magazine” in 1868, and it was marketed as a cocktail for the spectators of horse races, not as medicine, but rather a refreshing drink for the hot climate. As we already established in our article about the History of Women and Gin (LINK), gin had a bad reputation in the 18th Century. However, when G&T was being marketed in the 19th Century, gin had just gained some respect back, and the drink was not as notorious as it was a hundred years ago.

The amounts of quinine in tonic water would not help you beat malaria, or you would at least have to drink absurdly large quantities for it to do any good. Especially dry tonics contain only a minimal amount of quinine because they would not be drinkable otherwise due to them only using a reduced amount of sugar. That the British drank G&Ts to prevent or cure malaria seems to be a rumor that was invented in the 20th Century.

Tonic Water Today

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Our modern tonic water is often enhanced with citrus flavors, but nowadays, more and more tonic waters are invented, with exciting flavors such as elderflower and all kinds of fruit. In some countries, like the U.S., the quinine amount in tonics is even regulated by the government. To get a medicinal dose of quinine, you would have to drink over six liters or 1.6 gallons of tonic water!

So, while it seems as if nothing but the familiar bitter taste of quinine has stayed in our tonics since, our favorite soft drink still contains a fun surprise. You can see the quinine if you shine a UV light on your G&T: It will glow in the dark. And even though our G&Ts might not save us from malaria or covid, it still remains our favorite drink!

When it comes to tonic trends right now, Diet Tonic Water is getting more popular because of its low sugar content. The demand for naturally flavored tonic water is also rising because of raised health consciousness among people. Sodastream, for example, offers naturally flavored diet tonics containing zero calories.

North Americans and Europeans steadily mix more gin and tonics over time. The demand for gin went up the recent years in these regions, thanks to new brands and exciting new flavors in the gin world. The biggest tonic brands are Fever-Tree, Dr. Pepper, Hansen beverage, Fentimans Ltd, Soda Stream, Coca Cola, and El Guapo Bitters. Especially fever tree has many innovative flavors and now dabbles into the market of other mixing drinks as well, such as ginger ale.

While tonic used to be available in big soda bottles mostly, the new premium mixer tonics are mostly available in small 0.5 l glass bottles now. Some are with lots of carbon dioxide, as the Golden Monaco Tonic Water. But most are just a little bit carbonated. Therefore, as not to lose the little carbon dioxide your tonic contains, try to mix your G&T by slowly pouring the tonic over the gin with your glass angled to the side like you would pour a beer.

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