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  • Jonathan Winters

Two Centuries of Tonic

Tonic water, that cold bubbly drink we pour out of small bottles or cans to mix with our gin, seems straightforward enough. To us it seems almost akin to a soft drink, especially with all the varieties currently available, lemon, aromatic, elderflower, etc. In fact it is usually sold in the soft drink aisle of markets just about everywhere in the developed world.

And as most gin drinkers know how it came to be, because quinine water was given to British soldiers stationed in India to fight off malaria. Because quinine is so bitter and unpleasant, they mixed it with sugar to sweeten it, and thus created tonic water, which they mixed with gin to create what we know as the gin and tonic.

But that’s not the whole story, or even the real one. Parts of it are absolutely true of course, but there is quite a bit more. So let’s take a deeper look.

First of all, what we think of as tonic water is not the only tonic water there is. A tonic is literally defined as - an agent, such as a medication, that is supposed to restore or improve health or well-being - and water, was most often the substance mixed in. Basically it was medicine and it’s been around essentially since people first started trying to fight off disease.

Thus there are many types of “tonic” waters. They’ve encompassed everything from the natural spring waters of Malvern, or Saratoga Springs, to vitamin waters, to quinine waters.

You don’t have to look hard to find “tonic” waters today. But they aren’t marketed as tonic water - but as water (with some implied benefits, such as high pH, extra hydrating, etc), or nutraceuticals. In fact there is no shortage of them at all today.

But the tonic water we know best today was one that dealt with a specific disease - Malaria.

Malaria is one of the earliest known diseases of mankind - infecting our ancestors since the time we still hung out in trees. It haunted the ancient Egyptians, decimated Greece, Rome, the peoples of Asia, colonists in Australia, and still haunts some parts of the world today - still killing more than 600,000 annually (according to Wiki).

Until about 1550 it was treated, quite unsuccessfully, with herbal mixtures. There simply wasn’t anything that worked. At least until after European colonists carried malaria to the Americas. Then the Quechua indians found a tree, the Cinchona, also known as the “Fever Tree”, whose bark successfully treated malaria. They had discovered quinine. Jesuit missionaries took that knowledge and the seeds back to Europe. By 1712 it was established as the treatment for malaria - and eventually as a preventative.

But that’s not where the story ends. When the British went to India they took that powdered bark, known as quinine with them. Now quinine is extraordinarily bitter, and largely unpalatable by itself, so the British mixed it with water, and sugar, to make the basis of what we know today as Indian tonic water, but you probably wouldn’t recognize it today - it was a rough and uneven mixture, essentially homebrewed but functional.

Then in 1858 a man by the name of Erasmus Bond* aerated it and added other flavors - hence making the first real Indian tonic. Then in 1870 the Schweppes company, by then almost 90 year olds stepped in and created their own “Indian Quinine Tonic” - the first bottled carbonated drink, which soon dominated the market especially overseas in places where daily antimalarials were needed.

During World War II that brand too looked like it would disappear forever as all means of production essentially ceased from 1939-1946 - as almost all quinine production was in Java, Indonesia which was seized by the Japanese, and what little where was, was needed for soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater. Due to those restrictions neither Schweppes nor its competitors could produce quinine water -and while many of those companies faded away, Schweppes managed to survive, although they produced no product. Rather than shutter, they continued to advertise - stressing that the brand would return and that things would return to normal. And it did in late 1946.

But as time changed, and British imperialism’s power waned, the function of tonic water changed too. It was less and less needed as an anti-malarial, due to the development of more effective (though still quinine based) drugs, and it became far more used for it’s more pleasant purposes of making a nice gin and tonic.

And tonic water as we know it changed too. No longer did it need to contain medically effective doses of quinine, and the amount of quinine was dropped by more than 90%, in some cases even by more than 95% *** leaving just the bitterness in what is no longer truly a “tonic water.”

It’s unlikely Jacob Schweppes would take a sip of Schweppes’ tonic water today and recognize it as his company’s creation***. But today, almost 55 years later, Schweppes is still the biggest name in what we still call tonic water. The recipe is far from the same, but almost all modern "tonic waters" owe part of their heritage to them - at least in terms of the bubbles, and nominclature.

But he probably wouldn’t recognize more modern tonic waters either. Because while quinine water was the basis of what we know as tonic, and most of us associate Indian tonic water as the norm, it really isn’t. Tonic water was always a combination of flavorings and quinine. Leading to a modern revolution in it where we have flavored tonic waters, made in different styles, to mix with our gin.

We live in a world of craft gins, and craft tonics, many created by people who didn’t like all the sugars, or corn syrups, or even the flavors of the granddaddy of tonic waters.

If you are lucky enough to live in the UK or Europe today you’ve got a wealth of craft but commercial tonic waters to choose from (and I have to admit I’m jealous of that). Here in the US we have a lot fewer. Our choices essentially boil down to Schweppes, Canada Dry, Vintage, and Polar, which are all basically mass produced and in the same mold, and smaller more boutique produced tonic waters like Fever Tree, Q, London Essence, Fentiman''s, Jack Rudy and More Good (the last two are available as syrups only).****

And it doesn’t matter if you like your tonic water made with elderflower, aromatic, lemon, Mediterranean, or classic, they are all tonic waters. Enjoy them.


* A company now makes a tonic water available in the UK by the name Erasmus Bond, but it is a brand name - not the original made by Erasmus bond.

** In the US the quinine content is regulated to just 83mg/l. Antimalarial doses ranged from 1000-2000mg.

*** To be fair, one of the reasons Jacob Schweppes wouldn't recognize Schweppes tonic water is that he never tasted it. He died 49 years before the Schweppes company started producing tonic water.

**** of course the day after I wrote this I found two new tonic waters, produced under the San Pellegrino name.

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