Tonic Water

by John Pope

A quick look at tonic, the long time companion of gin, and the (historic) prophylaxis for malaria.

We’ve recently published an article on gin, so it seems only fitting to add one about it’s long time companion tonic.

The gin connection isn’t the only reason to write about, and celebrate, tonic. I love to drink it just as it comes over ice, or mix it with lime cordial for a super refreshing summery drink, I would drink it all the time if it were not for the ridiculous amount of calories that it contains.

What is it?

Let’s keep this simple, tonic water is a carbonated drink flavoured with quinine. It can contain other flavouring ingredients, but it doesn’t have to.

Quinine is extracted from the bark of the Cinchona tree, and has been traditionally used to treat malaria. The problem is that quinine on it’s own tastes absolutely vile.

Tonic water was created in 1825 when British army officers stationed in India mixed quinine with sugar and water, in an attempt to create a daily drink that would act as a malaria prophylaxis. This still didn’t make it overly palatable, so to counteract the taste they decided to try mixing it with gin. Thus not only was tonic water born, but so was one of the worlds classic mixed drinks, the G&T.

The tonic water available today tastes a world away from what they were drinking in India 190 years ago, for a couple of important reasons.

Firstly, the level of quinine used in modern tonic is much lower than it was back then. This is a good thing because in regular large doses quinine itself is quite toxic.

Tonic is also made with other botanical ingredients. These can be either natural or artificial, depending on the quality of the tonic.

It’s carbonated. I don’t know where the carbonation crept into the history, but in 1825 it wasn’t, and today it is.

Finally, the majority of tonic water you’ll find in the shops today has a large amount of high fructose corn syrup added to it. Those that don’t (the expensive ones) are often sweetened with agave syrup.

What to buy (not all tonics are created equal)

Supermarket brands

Every supermarket has it’s own brand of tonic water, and at this level they all taste pretty much the same.

They (generally) have two big problems. The first is that they all seem to lose their carbonation very quickly once they are opened, and the second is that they are all hugely calorific due to corn syrup used to sweeten them.

The midrange

In the midrange (at least in Europe), the two big brands are Schwepps and Nordic Mist.

There really isn’t much to choose between them. They are virtually identical in price, Nordic Mist has a slightly stronger taste, but seems to have less carbonation.

Strangely there is one other thing that they seem to have in common, they both (in my experience) hold their carbonation much better when bought in bottles than in cans. I have no idea why that might be, but it is.

and from the sublime …

There are a couple of premium brands of tonic water out there, but you are going to pay more for them, either slightly or horrifically more depending on what country you live in.

It is a sad but very true fact that with tonic water, you really do get what you pay for.

Fever Tree is (according to them) served in six of the top ten restaurants in the world, including El Bulli and The Fat Duck. If it’s good enough for Ferran and Heston, then who are we to argue?

You really can taste the difference between Fever Tree and a cheaper tonic water. It has a much better balance between the sweet and bitter tastes, and has a more herbal flavour.

It is also much lower in calories than Schwepps or the supermarket brands due to the fact that it isn’t full of high fructose corn syrup.

… to the ridiculous

There are an increasing amount of ‘super premium‘ brands out there, the one that I have chosen to pick on is Q Tonic.

Now, Q Tonic is made from Peruvian quinine and natural agar syrup. I’m sure that it tastes wonderful, but I don’t know. The reason that I don’t know is that where I live, they want €18 for four small bottles of it. It seems to be a lot cheaper in the USA but I live in Europe.

Maybe it’s stupid that I am willing to pay for premium gin, but not for the tonic to go with it, but that just seems like too much money for tonic water. Especially when Fever Tree is so good, and is so much cheaper.

Or you could make it

Although it sounds exotic and tricky, you can pretty easily make your own tonic water.

Check back here for a recipe coming soon.

  • Jamie A Darder

    A couple of weeks ago. in Spain I found NORDIC MIST a fantastic tonoc water and with a drink size can that does not loose efervecence!!! One can . one drink and with Vodka is my prefered Summer drink////We;; Done CocaCola1!! Where can I buy it in New Yoprk Any store?….Schweppes..You are out!of business!!! I

  • http://www.johnstonic.com John

    Just launched my site as an alternative to the premium tonic waters out there. Please check it out at http://www.johnstonic.com

    • http://porkandgin.com/users/john-pope/ John Pope

      Hi John, and thanks for the link.

      Tonic coming as a syrup for dilution is a completely new idea to me and I’m very curious about it.

  • babaelf

    I’m still waiting for your info on making my own tonic water, especially where to get the tonic flavoring?? If you can help!! thanks

    • http://porkandgin.com/users/john-pope/ John Pope

      We are still playing with the recipe, but I’ll be posting an article on it as soon as I’m really happy with it.

      In the meantime, you can find a great recipe to start with at http://www.jeffreymorgenthaler.com/2008/how-to-make-your-own-tonic-water/.

      As for where to get Cinchona bark, if you let me know what part of the world you live in, then I’ll try to help you out.

    • Fi

      I’d love to see this as well.

  • Harry

    Hi John, recently I’ve been experimenting with different gins (Bombay Saphire, Tanqueray 10 & Hendricks). I live in South Korea and Jinro is the only tonic water I can find. God knows what’s in it but it doesn’t have a strong flavour which means you can really taste the gin and differentiate between the brands easily. I was just back in England having Schweppes and found it strong, overpowering the gin. It made me think that it took away from the enjoyment of the quality gins which seems pretty silly when the gin is by far the most expensive part. I was wondering what other people thought about this? Are there any quality tonic waters which allow you to savour both? Maybe that Q Tonic? You should at least buy it once to try it, though oo much for a regular drink I agree.

    • http://porkandgin.com/users/john-pope/ John Pope

      Hi Harry,

      I have tried Q Tonic, and I do think it’s really good tonic water, but I prefer the taste of fever tree which is much cheaper.

      I agree with you that Schweppes is overpowering, I don’t think that the ‘premium’ tonics necessarily have less taste of their own, they just seem to mix and react better with the flavours that are in the gin. The tonic is there to add something in flavour to the drink after all, otherwise we’d just put lightly carbonated water with the gin.

  • Bojole

    Had a gin and tonic at a reunion of some old pilots and it was great. The tonic water had little pieces of bark floating in it. Does anyone out there know what the name of that brand was? Was either in San Antonio or St. Louis when I drank it.
    Bojole