What is tonic water?

What is tonic water? Another good question as part of our FAQ series...Let's get to this.

Tonic water is a slightly bitter, sour, sweet, bubbly soft drink. It is a strange brew of quinine extract ( a naturally derived botanical extract), lemon or lime peel extract, and some sugar, all diluted down with carbonated water. It has a sweet, sour, bitter taste. Some claim it is the perfect cocktail mixer, as it has everything a cocktail needs; dilution, bitterness, and some sugar. 

But the start of tonic water wasn't in cocktails. It has an interesting history. Steeped in botanical medicine, tonic water was initially used for the anti-malarial properties of the quinine, as the key bittering flavor found in tonic water was initially used for that purpose. However the use of tonic water morphed into a soft drink mixer for gin and it became particular popular in the UK. It is the base for the gin and tonic, or G&T. After WWII, the US soldiers came home from the UK with a thirst for this unusual soft drink, and cocktail. The G&T became popular with the country club set, eventually making it's way into every bar and restaurant in the US as a classic cocktail. 

Cinchona flower

Fast forward about 2007, when bartenders began experimenting with the botanical basics of the tonic water. Tonic syrups began to pop up in Brooklyn, NY and other places. Cinchona bark (the source of quinine), available in herb stores, was rediscovered as an herb to be reckoned with, and one to experiment with. Bartenders began cooking up their own syrups, using Cinchona as a base, adding citric acids, lime peels etc. This whole herb tonic, now re-discovered, was  flavorful, potent, and sometimes too high in quinine. But "crafted" tonics were not going to go away; instead the whole category of tonic water saw a surge of innovation. Beverage makers took the opportunity and new interest of bartenders to upscale tonic water, into a premium soft drink mixer. 

Top Note Original Indian Tonic Syrup, Circa 2015

As more premium tonics became available, the G&T was also becoming more hip. No longer stubbornly made by bartenders as a boring call drink, this cocktail was being elevated, highlighted, and made "fancy" by mainly Spanish bartenders who found herbs, spices and a bit of flair made for a better drink too. The Spanish G&T became a thang. It is well known, that British may have perfected tonic, but the G&T was perfected by the Spanish. Along with that revolution came better tonics out of the UK, and eventually all of Europe. 

Spanish G&T


Top Note took an innovative approach to tonic making. We too started in syrups back in 2014. At that time we found Gentian root from the plant Gentian lutea to provide a subtle yet more interesting bitter. This plant root has been used for centuries to provide a digestivo bitter herbal component to herb tinctures, bitter liqueurs and other bitters found on the dropper bottles so popular today. Gentian has a soft earthy characteristic, and also a bit of a honeysuckle nose. Our aromatic tonics therefore have the two botanical bitters, Quinine and Gentian Root. These tonics (our Indian Tonic and Bitter Lemon) are much more in the European tradition of a bitter soft drink, but play very well in classic tonic drinks. Where they become interesting is in non-classic drinks, like coffee tonic or in something as clever as a "Piston" or Pisco tonic. (we love Catan Pisco for this!)



Gentian lutea flower

Our tonic with Quinine as the sole bitter is our Classic Tonic. We like this one for the pure tonic experience. A London dry gin and Top Note Classic is a classic. When we began crafting this tonic, we noted there were other bitters that commodity tonics use. Quassia bark is a pure bitter bark from Jamaica. It is commonly added to tonic as a way to add bitter, and it is cheaper extraction than a pure Quinine from Cinchona. We discovered the pure quinine natural extract had a nice lime character, and it was easily amplified with nice lime peel extract. Our classic tonic is simple, but really delicious. 

That about sums up what goes into tonic making. The history is fantastic, and we did it little justice here. For great reading check out these items;

Just the Tonic: Kew Publications

Tonic Water: AKA WTF: Alcademics Publication, Camper English E-book

The Remarkable Versitlity of Tonic Water: The Atlantic Gastropod Podcast



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