Gin has been having a resurgence in the last five years or so, and so has tonic. The market is chock-a-block with new manufacturers offering exciting varieties designed to give G and T lovers even more choice over what they put in their favourite cocktail. And rightly so, because a gin and tonic is at least ¾ tonic, so tonic has a big part to play in the taste of the finished product.
Tonic water may be going through some exciting changes just now, but that is nothing new. As wars and technological innovations have come and gone, the recipe for tonic water has changed constantly over the decades.
The colourful history of this fascinating soft drink can be traced back to around 1825, when the European powers were building their empires around the world, and in India, British soldiers were battling with tropical diseases – particularly malaria. To relieve the symptoms, army doctors would prescribe quinine, an extremely bitter, water-soluble, crystalline powder derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. The powder was taken dissolved in water, but it tasted very unpleasant, so the soldiers would add sugar. Later, they replaced the water with soda water – and tonic water was born. In the years to come, tonic was increasingly mixed with gin, which, like rum, was one of the standard tipples in the British Army. It was consumed in vast quantities at that time.
But the healing properties of quinine were known of long before that: The first record of its being used for medicinal purposes dates back to 1638, when the Peruvian viceroy’s wife, the Countess of Chinchón, contracted malaria. The Incas brought her quinine and cured her (despite this selfless act, the Incas were still wiped out by the Spanish). In honour of the Countess of Chinchón, the tree that saved her life was renamed cinchona tree. In English, it is also known as the fever tree.
The life-saving bark immediately became highly coveted in Europe. However, it had to be imported directly from Peru, as it was forbidden to take the seeds out of the country. As demand grew in the colonies as well, the price went stratospheric – at one point, powdered cinchona bark was literally worth its weight in gold! It was not long before the tree itself was virtually eradicated. In 1862, the smuggler Charles Ledger finally succeeded in taking seeds out of Peru, selling them to the Dutch government, which then set up huge cinchona plantations in Java in Indonesia.
From then until the Second World War, around 95% of all quinine worldwide came from Indonesia. But in winter 1942, Japan attacked Indonesia and took control of the country’s oil supply in order to fuel the Japanese war effort. This cut off the quinine supply from Indonesia to the rest of the world. To restore the quinine supply to its armed forces contracting malaria in various war zones, the US government paid its scientists to find an alternative source of quinine. Eventually, the scientists found a way of producing the precious substance synthetically, and the quinine supply to the troops was restored. Since natural quinine was by now virtually impossible to come by, tonic water manufacturers started using synthetic quinine in their recipes, which had the added advantage of being much cheaper.
Over the next few decades, synthetically produced quinine gradually established itself as the standard form used in tonic water. In recent years, however, as consumers have become more quality-conscious and G and T has come back into fashion, natural quinine has been enjoying a revival.