A brief history of tonic water

Why tonic water is new again

The drinking public’s interest in tonic water is making a major comeback. This interest is not only in Europe, the gin consuming capital of the world, but also the United States and for good reason. As an artisan mixer with alcohol, or as a refreshingly crisp stand-alone beverage, tonic has stood the test of time as a practical flavor balance to the sweet and potent. We explore the history of tonic water and why it’s acquired a high-end reputation as a mixer most recently in everything from Japanese whiskies, espresso, Italian Amaro, and Vermouth wine in this article.

Tonic Water: A History

You might be more familiar with what tonic water has been traditionally used to make: the legendary gin and tonic. There’s a lot of history behind that original blend, one that involves world conquest, vast fortunes made and lost, international smuggling, and curing one of the deadliest diseases to ever plague mankind. If you need a brush up, here is the true story of the most important drink mixer ever. We referred to many publications for this summary, but our favorites are Something and Tonic, by Nick Kokonas, published 2021 by Bark and bottle, Chicago, Il. And Just the Tonic: A History of Tonic Water by Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt, published by Kew, London 2020.


Part 1: The Emperor’s New Groove

There’s nothing groovy about diarrhea and tremors, but in the lush tropical rainforests of ancient Peru, these were common symptoms of what we now call malaria. Malaria-carrying mosquitos have been decimating the human species for a long time - some think it’s likely what killed Alexander The Great on his way back from India - but the Incas had a wonder drug growing in their Amazonian pharmacy called quinine. A powerful chemical within the bark of the cinchona tree, it’s highly toxic to malarial pathogens and stops it in its tracks in a way not fully understood to science even today. Considered a holy bark to the Peruvians, it was taken at the onset of fever and shaking by everyone from the king to the lowest peasant for centuries, and when Jesuit missionaries took notice of its effects in the 1500s they would eventually bring it with them back to Europe.

Quinine’s first test in the old world was in 17th century Rome treating the frequent malaria outbreaks near the city’s marshes and swamps. It proved to be a huge success and the import of cinchona bark became a burgeoning business. It would explode in popularity when king Charles II of England was cured of malaria by quinine at the end of the 1600s and was instantly one of Peru’s most important exports and more expensive than gold.


Part II: Maintaining The Quinine Monopoly

The benefits of a drug that could prevent deaths from malaria proved very lucrative for sellers and buyers. Most of the African continent was cut off from European colonial expansionism not merely by language, distance, or infrastructure - but by this single disease with such a high mortality rate. The riches of West Africa were immediately opened up, and colonization flooded into the Gold Coast and beyond. Steps were taken by Peru and surrounding countries where the cinchona tree natively grew to control the market. Laws were passed making it illegal to export seeds and saplings out lest their most precious commodity take root somewhere else and undermine their economy.

Of course, the attempt proved futile. Much like Spain had tried to control the tobacco trade by the same measures and yet were supplanted by farmers in the new Virginia colonies, seeds of the cinchona tree were eventually smuggled out of Peru by Dutch entrepreneurs. Through clandestine operations, the Dutch managed to get a hold of several cinchona seeds and began planting them in large plantations they owned in Java - now known as Indonesia. The trees flourished in the Indonesian climate, and the control of quinine began to sway. By 1913 the Dutch supply of the bark was the dominant one, and the Kina Bureau was established to control the supply and price; by the 1930s Indonesian grown cinchona had reached 22-million pounds a year - 97% of the world’s supply.


Part 3: From Medicine To High-End Mixer

The usual way quinine was taken was by crushing the cinchona bark into a fine powder and mixing it with water to be taken orally. This was also the recommended method for British soldiers stationed in the East Indies at the height of 19th-century colonialism. However, quinine has an extremely bitter taste, so to make it more palatable, they started mixing it with carbonated water and adding some other ingredients like sugar to alleviate the taste. It wasn’t long before they found it to be particularly adaptive to the botanical flavoring of gin, and the gin-and-tonic was born and quickly propagated throughout the world.

Still a crucial medicine well into the next century, quinine would play a strategic role during WWII for the Axis and Allied powers. In 1942 Japan took control of Java and with it almost all of the world’s supply of the anti-malarial drug. The disease had already killed tens of thousands of American and allied soldiers, and without a new source losing the war was a likely outcome. The severity of the situation galvanized the United States Board of Economic Warfare under the Defense Supplies Corporation to source and harvest a wild-growing supply of quinine producing trees in the Andes of South America, a project headed by botanist and professor William C. Steere and called The Cinchona Missions.

With a team of ‘nine young people’ (young and healthy scientists) and locals as guides and laborers, they set out first into the dense jungles of West Columbia, in the high altitudes of the Cordillera Oriental and Rio Magdalena to locate cinchona trees by their small size, red leaves, and bright pink flowers. Steele described the arduous task to authorities back home: “[This expedition] is a day to day affair of slugging it out with the rain and mud and cold …with people who don’t want to work and mules that won’t go.”

They found many cinchona trees and a relative species there and by using the Grahe Test (putting pieces of the bark into a test tube and heating to see if it produced pink smoke) detected suitable amounts of quinine to be imported for antimalarial use. In 1943, Steele embarked on the Cinchona Mission to Ecuador, with similar success. By its completion in 1944, enough had been sourced to supply the American war effort to completion, with a victory fighting the Japanese on sweltering islands all over the Pacific.

However around that same time, tonic had been found as a useful mixer in the pubs of England. Many American soldiers took home the tradition of sipping on a quaffable G&T as an evening ritual. The drink became a popular call drink right about the time Schweppes began making tonic for the American consumer in Pennsylvania. Ads from Schweppes of that time show how the g&t stood out for a classy, classic upgrade highball.

Part 4: Modern day alchemy

Commodity Tonic water today is made with the same ingredients that you may have found in the 1950’s version of Schweppes. But a new breed of tonics, leading from Europe, are popping up in the States now. These tonics, influenced by the bartending trend of making high-quality tonic syrups, have botanicals infused as complex as some of the gins they may be mixed with. Tonic, for that reason, is being used in multiple types of cocktails now. We particularly like vermouth and tonic. This is a simple, but high-quality, low proof cocktail that anyone can make at home. Another unique style of tonic cocktail is the white port and tonic. Stolen from our Portuguese friends, this cocktail uses just 2 high-quality, but very simple ingredients, that shine as an aperitif cocktail.

When we designed our tonics at Top Note, we kept to the American craft way of looking at things. First we knew that using the bittering agent quinine alone could be something special. Our classic tonic water is just that. A phenomenal tonic on its own for a balanced quinine, lime, sour drink, the tonic mixes really well with London dry gin. Our special tonics, that being our Indian tonic water, bitter lemon, and or newest tonic Gentiana, infuse Gentian root as a secondary source of bitter. Gentian provides a subtle earthiness to a drink, but the Top Notes of honeysuckle, and wood.

Other aromatics, you’ll find in our tonics, as well as in others, include unique botanicals such as kaffir lime; grapefruit zest; elderberry; hibiscus. The new craft tonics found in the US market are well worth seeking out and playing with in a cocktail making of your own. Decidedly we are not using tonic for its quinine infusion any longer. So why not enjoy the flavor of a balanced slightly bitter slightly tart more adult soft beverage and in your drink of choice?

Bonus Part 5:  Great Ways To Use Tonic Water As An Artisan Mixer

Recently tonic water has been growing in popularity and mix masters are experimenting with it at the bar as well as at home. There have been some drinks that have been found to cut quite nicely, and they might surprise you. Don’t be afraid to try some of these recipes or maybe even get inspired to create your very own new classic drink.

Cherry Gin and Tonic

The Cherry Gin and Tonic is a sweet and delectable way to serve the classic G&T.


2 oz. of Gin (We recommend Tanqueray)

Ripe, Dark, Cherries 3

Dashes of Lime Juice

Top Note Classic Tonic Water to Taste

Mix cherries, gin, and lime Juice to glass and stir gently, then add tonic water and enjoy.


The Portonic

This twist on the Portuguese Tonic from Food and Wine is a great tangy cocktail that packs a refreshing flavor and plenty of punch.

2 oz. of White Port (We recommend Churchills Dry White Port)

Dash of Lime Juice


2 oz. of Top Note Indian Tonic Water

One Slice of Lemon for garnish

2 Sliced, Skewered, Green Grapes (For Garnish)

Mix white port, lime juice, and ice to a glass and gently stir. Add tonic water, then the bitter lemon and green grapes.

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