A Brief History of Tonic Water


A Brief History of Tonic

The rather bitter tonic water we know today has its roots in the use of quinine (the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, dried and powdered) as a prophylactic against malaria, a property that had been known to the Quechua people (who are indigenous to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador) for centuries. The Jesuits first brought cinchona to Europe in the 1570s, and its use to treat malaria was recorded in Rome in 1631. In fact, it is sometimes known as Jesuit’s Bark. When King Charles II was cured of malaria with quinine at the end of the C17th, it became popular in London. Quinine remained the antimalarial drug of choice until the mid-C20th.

Quinine is unpalatably bitter, and it was customary – certainly amongst British officials stationed in early C19th India and other tropical posts – to mix the powder with soda water and sugar. It isn’t recorded when gin was first added to the mix, but it seems very probable that it originated in British Colonial India at the start of the nineteenth century.

Early tonics consumed for ‘medicinal purposes’ had large amounts of quinine – the effective dose is over 600mg orally every 8 hours for seven days. Modern tonics have a fraction of that quantity and have subsequently no medicinal value whatsoever. Although tonic water has also been known to relieve leg cramps, and also to reduce stress.

In 1767 Joseph Priestley, an English scientist, built on earlier work by Henry Cavendish and developed a process for carbonating water – that is, for bubbling carbon dioxide through water – and found his ‘soda water’ had a pleasant taste and offered it to friends as a cool and refreshing drink. Priestley referred to his invention of soda water as being his “happiest” discovery.

A Swiss-born watchmaker, Johann Jacob Schweppe, developed a commercial process to manufacture carbonated mineral water and founded the Schweppes company in Geneva in 1783, but the company failed in 1795. However, Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles Darwin) promoted the product, which slowly grew in popularity. In 1831, King William IV adopted the beverage which could then use the ‘by appointment’ label, and subsequently became extremely popular.

The somewhat chequered history of Gin is well documented, but for our purposes we can assume that with the invention of the column still in 1826, in use by the then well-established Gordon’s distillery in Southwark (later it moved to Camberwell) meant that the quality of gin shipped out to the Indian colonies was of reasonably high quality.

So, the scene is set for the invention (or discovery, perhaps) of the simple, classic, timeless cocktail, the Gin and Tonic.

Picture perhaps the Officers’ Mess of the 6th Madras Light Cavalry, or the Ootacamund Hunting Club in the hills outside Madras. Picture Lieutenant Colonel George Bingham Arbuthnot, recently returned from an unsatisfactory hunt, late for mess dinner and very, very thirsty. Also requiring to consume his daily ration of quinine, he impetuously takes a large gin from the Sepoy steward and throws it into his medicine glass, and drains the concoction in a single draught. He savours the aftertaste of the mixture in his mouth, and vows to try the same mixture again when at greater leisure. Perhaps while devising the rules of his new pastime, ‘snooker’ (a variant of the popular billiards game), he persuades others to try the mixture. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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