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How Tonic Water Fast-Tracked Its Way to Modern Ubiquity

In 2019, I found myself in Trujillo, Peru, on the roof of the one-story concrete home of Roque Raul Rodriguez Barrutia, trying to avoid knocking down the drying clothes barricading the pathway to his makeshift laboratory. I’d traveled to South America in search of a tree that’s profoundly impacted the development of modern civilization and unequivocally shaped our world. Its curative properties have saved countless lives, but it also drove and enabled European colonization across the globe. The tree’s history is steeped in centuries of controversy, greed, and oppression, but it’s also become a regular part of many of our lives. Hidden behind the black net entranceway is what I’d come 3,000 miles to find. Barrutia pulled back the cover, revealing hundreds of tree saplings. The cinchona (sin-KOH-nuh) tree is native to the western Amazon rainforest in the Andes mountains. Its bark contains the alkaloid quinine, a compound that became the only treatment for malaria from the early 1600s through World War II. It’s also the essence of one of the most ubiquitous ingredients behind every bar: tonic water.

“I’d completely lost interest in the Gin & Tonic as a beverage until the better tonics came on the market.”—Camper English

The Gin & Tonic has withstood the test of time. It’s become ingrained in drinking culture over its century-and-a-half history, and despite logic, it continues to persevere. “Honestly, I’m kind of surprised people around the world enjoy a bitter soda with lots of sugar in it. It seems unique that we’re all still drinking this once-medicinal beverage,” says Camper English, author of Doctors and Distillers. Tonic has gone through a few rough patches over the years, and most drinkers were introduced to the beverage through one-liter plastic bottles of low-quality tonic. “I’d completely lost interest in the Gin & Tonic as a beverage until the better tonics came on the market,” says English.

The relatively recent debut of high-quality tonic waters created an unprecedented moment for this historically rich beverage. With amped-up flavor, out-of-the-box applications, and the ability to provide a flavorful backbone to both boozy drinks and spirit-free mixtures, today’s tonic waters are creating a new future for the drink. But how did we get from medicinal tree bark to highball supremacy?

It starts with malaria, a blood-borne parasite whose life cycle thrives on an interdependent relationship between the female Anopheles mosquito and humans. In humans, malaria induces fever, ague (chills), and depending on the severity, death. Quinine present in the cinchona tree’s bark arrests the parasite’s ability to reproduce, thus reducing symptoms.

Centuries ago, through trial and error, native healers around modern-day Loja, Ecuador, discovered cinchona bark’s powers. In the early 1600s, Jesuit missionaries learned of the bark’s medicinal qualities from those healers, and began exporting quantities of bark back to Europe. The miracle drug then slowly expanded through Jesuit channels. Cinchona was solidified in Western medicine later that century by an Englishman, Robert Talbor, whose life’s work revolved around the bark and its curative properties. Talbor steeped cinchona bark in wine and gaveit to patients over a prolonged period in a simple process that became known as the English Remedy, earning Talbor prominence and royal favor across Europe. Talbor’s recipe was eventually purchased by King Louis XIV of France and published in 1682, following Talbor’s death. Within decades, demand for cinchona surged.

The most bitter part of this story is the consequences this demand created for Indigenous peoples in the tree’s native land.

The most bitter part of this story is the consequences this demand created for Indigenous peoples in the tree’s native land. Workers tasked with collecting bark—many of them enslaved or indentured—were called cascarilleros, and were forced to traverse the mountainous regions of the Amazon for months with minimal provisions in atrocious conditions, searching for elusive clusters of trees. Once cinchona was found, the cascarilleros would score, fell, strip, dry, pack, and return hundreds of pounds of bark to their European occupiers. The bark was then sent back to Europe, and used to equip expeditions to India, Indonesia, Southeastern Asia, and eventually the interior of Africa. Armed with a treatment for malaria, imperial powers colonized the globe.

As South American countries gained independence in the early 1800s, post-colonial governments attempted to preserve and protect remaining natural resources. But the English and Dutch needed cinchona to maintain control of their extensive trade routes, and plans were implemented to smuggle cinchona seeds out of South America and form plantations within their colonies.

Massive infrastructure projects undertaken by the British Raj in India increased the need for cinchona, as farmland irrigation and railway networks gave mosquitos exponentially more breeding ground and the means for the quick spread of disease. In the 1850s, Clements Robert Markham led an expedition to procure South American cinchona seeds that led to the development of plantations in the Nilgiri Hills of Southeastern India.

These plantations would soon be eclipsed by the Dutch plantations in Java. Convinced that Markham had procured inferior seeds, Charles Ledger and his longtime acquaintance Manuel Incra Mamani eventually obtained seeds from a different cinchona species in Bolivia. Each of the more than 20 species of cinchona had a different percentage of quinine in the bark. Before the appearance of these Bolivian seeds, good bark was considered to have 3 to 4 percent quinine; the new species contained up to 13 percent.

After that, Java would become the epicenter of cinchona, accounting for around 95 percent of the world’s supply. Its reign ended only when the Japanese gained control of the island during World War II, forcing Allied scientists to develop synthesized quinine, eliminating the need for bark.

The first tonic water, Pitt’s Aerated Tonic Water, was patented in England on May 28, 1858, by Erasmus Bond as “an improved aerated liquid.” Foreshadowing the drink’s destiny as a faithful companion to spirits, early advertisements for Pitt’s boasted, “In some cases, a small portion of wine or French brandy may be required.” Now, we’re talking.

Tonic water’s popularity spread as it became known as a drink of the tropics. Many brands adopted the name “Indian tonic water,” appealing as “exotic” to Europe and North American markets (many brands today continue using “Indian” on their labels). Its association with hot climates made it a summer tipple to beat the heat, which it arguably remains today. Its signature mixture, the Gin & Tonic, became the darling of England around the turn of the 20th century, in part due to an advertising campaign by Schweppes. (The story that the combination originated as part of 19th-century British naval rations isn’t true; quinine was only administered to sailors going ashore, who were far more likely to be drinking rum rather than gin.) The popularity of tonic highballs would jump to the States when soldiers fighting in World War II returned with a taste for the beverage.

The resurgence of tonic water came with the modern cocktail revival in the early 2000s, as bartenders drove demand for better-quality tonic.

A falling out of favor (and flavor) would happen in midcentury American drinking culture, and for the next few decades, tonic water settled into a stalwart if stagnant role. Bland cocktails became the norm, and high fructose corn syrup seeped into just about everything. The resurgence of tonic water came with the modern cocktail revival in the early 2000s, as bartenders drove demand for better-quality tonic.

Premium tonic companies began sourcing quinine from across the globe. Today, one of the largest producers is the Democratic Republic of Congo, but supplies remain from India, Sri Lanka, Java, and—thanks to the efforts of people like Barrutia—Peru. Cinchona is the national tree of Peru, adorning the country’s flag, and Barrutia began his work after reading about the tree’s demise, due in part to indiscriminate land clearing for planting coca, a far more lucrative business.

Barrutia set up his modest greenhouse/nursery/laboratory and got to work sprouting cinchona trees in discarded plastic cake containers and to-go boxes. He nurtures them for two or three years until the saplings are hardy enough to be planted. He then travels throughout Peru to increase awareness of the tree’s importance to Peru’s history and future. The ultimate goal is to increase exports and build a cinchona processing plant, returning the cinchona tree to the glory it once had.

To improve overall flavor, premium tonics have moved to healthier sweeteners and reduced the total amount of sugars in their tonics, with cane sugar, agave, honey, or beet sugar being the most common.

Tonic water today is made similarly to most sodas. Cinchona bark is typically processed and used as quinine extract. To improve overall flavor, premium tonics have moved to healthier sweeteners and reduced the total amount of sugars in their tonics, with cane sugar, agave, honey, or beet sugar being the most common. Light tonic water is also popular within the category, using fruit-based sugars or limiting sugar amounts even further. (Government regulations limit the amount of quinine in tonic, due to the severe side effects of overconsumption. A condition called cinchonism mirrors malaria in several respects, with the fun addition of making everything taste like bark. Today’s tonic water is safe and tasty, but it won’t cure malaria. Trade-offs.)

Exploring the options within the premium tonic category reveals tonic’s wild differences. “I’m always aware of the viscosity of tonic, the amount of carbonation, and the flavor profile,” says Natasha Bahrami, owner of The Gin Room in St. Louis. “Premium tonic with good gin is important in understanding the concept of a G&T.”

In the United States, tonic consumption is limited largely by the options available on the shelf. A growing number of tonics are becoming available, but less-prevalent brands may require some searching. Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Mixers, says, “Our biggest ‘competition’ is people not thinking about their tonic water.” Silbert is optimistic that the expansion of availability will ultimately demonstrate the value of quality tonic. “The new small companies help more people realize that the tonic is actually as important, if not more important, than the spirit it’s being mixed with.”

One tactic some companies are adopting is expanding the tonic category with the addition of secondary flavors. Cucumber, elderflower, yuzu, grapefruit, lemon, herbs, rosemary with black olive, and other options grace today’s tonic labels. These expressions aim to attract consumers who are perhaps averse to tonic. The expanse of flavored tonics “gives you an extra ingredient in a cocktail,” says Charles Gibb, CEO of Fever-Tree North America. “We allow you to make a very sophisticated cocktail at home using only two ingredients.”

The real drivers behind tonic’s expansion and exploration are undoubtedly bartenders. “Bartenders are really a world of influence for me because they get to test the market with customers,” says Mary Pellettieri, co-founder of Top Note Tonic.

At The Mothership in Milwaukee, bar owner Ricky Ramirez keeps a section of the menu dedicated to riffs on classic cocktails. A recent highball featured a split base of Chardonnay-finished bourbon and mezcal paired with manzanilla sherry, pickled strawberry, pistachio, and sarsaparilla, topped with elderflower tonic. The result is a rich and complex highball that balances perfectly. “We started with whiskey and your head goes to, ‘We are making an Old Fashioned,’ but no, it can also be a highball,” Ramirez says. “This one has more body to it. It feels more like a serious drink.”

“I love to see what can be done beyond the Gin & Tonic. How can you incorporate all the notes in the liquid and echo them throughout the drink?”—Steven Ferreira

Steven Ferreira, bartender at Bar Belly in New York City, is also incorporating tonic in inventive ways. His Knight Rider cocktail features rhum agricole, gin, falernum, Bruto Americano, ginger, ube, lime, and tonic water. Ferreira is also a representative for London Essence Mixers, and spends a lot of time thinking about tonic. “I love to see what can be done beyond the Gin & Tonic. How can you incorporate all the notes in the liquid and echo them throughout the drink?”

The elevation of spirit-free cocktails is another huge area of potential growth for tonic. “The taste of tonic water is closely associated with the taste of traditional liquor-based cocktails for many people, so using tonic in spirit-free cocktails delivers an inherently ‘cocktail’ feeling even without the liquor,” says Katie Moslak of mixer newcomer Betty Buzz.

Premium tonic water is poised to become a powerhouse in cocktails, its rich history playing an important part in drinking’s past while moving toward a future beyond simple gin or vodka highballs. As an ingredient, tonic adds dilution, texture, flavor, bitterness, sweetness, tartness, and aroma. It shines with single ingredients beyond just gin or vodka. “We suggest weird things, because we think tonic water is a phenomenal mixer,” says Mary Pellettieri from Top Note. “It’s a refreshing complement to so many beverages, from vermouth to amari to espresso.”

Moslak agrees. “We’re on a quest to welcome more people into the world of tonic whether mixed with spirits or not,” she says. “We want to champion a new generation of people drinking tonic however they like.”

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