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Why tonic water should be appreciated in its own right

The rich story of the humble tonic means it should be elevated from its status as gin’s sidekick, writes Donald Stephenson

Published: November 3, 2017

A person walks into a bar and orders a gin and tonic – a fairly regular occurrence in modern day society. However, that was not always the case.

Gin itself has an incredible and exciting story that has been shared many times over, yet the humble tonic is often overlooked in regards to its eventful journey that would eventually see it arrive in our glass.

Like all good stories, the tale of how tonic water came to be is a twist of folklore and truth bound together to create a fascinating account.

It starts with the Countess of Cinchona, whose party travelled from Europe to Peru in c1630, where the Countess fell ill to the jungle fever – or malaria as it is called now – and was given a local cure for the disease, a potion made from the bark of the “fever” tree.

So taken were they by the healing powers of the magical tree, the visitors decided to rename the plant after the Countess.

The newly “discovered” medicinal bark was soon packaged up and sent back to Europe; however, poor marketing caused it to fail.

Named “Jesuits Powder”, after the missionaries that brought it back with them from South America, this title failed to really catch the imagination of the Protestant lands of England and was soon forgotten about – even though it was used to help cure one of the country’s monarchs, Charles II, of the “fever”.

It is only when the curative substance reaches the Indian subcontinent that we see the birth of what would go on to become what is now known as tonic water.

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So what makes tonic water, tonic water? One simple addition to what would otherwise just be a syrupy sweet soda – quinine, a bitter tasting, life-saving, naturally occurring substance that helps fight off the sleeping sickness, drawn from the bark of the aforementioned Cinchona tree.

The popularisation of the drink stems from the growth of Britain’s old Empire, where it was originally administered to the troops and workers carving their way through the princely states of what is now India.

The drug was a preventative measure against the malaria that was ravaging the ranks.

Whereas the masses consumed the nasty-tasting potion by the spoon, the officer classes realised that adding it to their water along with a healthy dose of gin made it more palatable, and in fact, seemed to be more effective all round.

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This is the first recorded instance of that now famous drinks pairing.
It should be noted that the tonic water now consumed is not exactly the same as the original.

There are two major differences. Almost all quinine is now synthetic and the amount added is far less than its medical requirements.

Quinine is also listed in medical advice books from the 1930s as a cure or aid to fighting the common cold. If only that was still the case, you could have argued for tonics on prescription from your doctor.

Fast forward to the present day and the tonic landscape is as diverse as it is tasty.

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Innovation has really peaked in the last decade and the growth of the botanical-led gin market has also helped to drive even more invention in terms of drinks.

As leading mixologist Michael Cameron puts it: “The way tonic is evolving in the modern age is that it’s not just for gin or vodka any more.

“A glimmer of tradition is a beautiful – even essential – thing if administered with a temperate eye, but it should always fuel rather than contradict evolution.

“Tonics in the market of 2018 and beyond bring this exact philosophy to bottle. It’s time to reimagine the entire state of play and leading brands are doing just that.”

So, maybe it’s time to realise that tonics are not just for gins, and that they deserve to be appreciated on their own.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on a tonic adventure of your own, and let's remember, that tonics are not just for gins, but they are always a good place to start.

Simple serves:

Plymouth Gin & Fever Tree tonic

A cast back to the days of the empire with the oldest gin type still in production and the tonic on the market keeping to a traditional recipe made with real quinine.

Scottish Botanical Gin & Bon Accord Tonic

Tonic water

Picture: Stewart Attwood

Scotland is at the forefront of the gin revolution, and there are a number of high quality gins
out there to choose from, so only fitting it is mixed with a high quality Scottish tonic.

Bourbon & Fentimans Pink Grapefruit Tonic

An interesting mix that would not at first sound like it belongs in the same glass. The delicate flavour of the pink grapefruit tonic, by the masters of botanicals, really brings out
the depth and complexity of the bourbon.

Tequila Blanco & Franklin & Son Sicilian Lemon Tonic

Forget the shot glass and reach for the highball instead. This is a most delightful way to enjoy
Tequila in a long refreshing drink.  The sharp citrus cut of the Sicilian lemon tonic is the magic in this pairing.

Vodka & Spantons Lemongrass tonic number 5

The classic drink of vodka tonic is given a blast of the exotic with the full flavour of this stunning
Lemongrass tonic, making it much more contemporary as well as tantalising the taste buds.

Cocktail Serve
(Designed by Michael Cameron)

Cocktail culture has truly clasped the modern craft mixers movement to its swelling bosom... here's
a cheeky version of the classic Silver Fizz that will illustrate the point perfectly:

'The Detroit Fizz'


• 35ml Rock Rose gin

• 15ml Creme de noisette

• 10ml House of Broughton ginger syrup

• 25ml Fresh lemon juice

• 10 ml Fino sherry

• 1 egg white


Shake vigorously and serve on the rocks topped with Peter Spanton Number 4 chocolate tonic.

• Donald Stephenson is brand and communications manager for drinks education specialists Liquid Academy


Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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