When Gin Met Tonic

From anti-malarial medicine to summertime refresher, a short history of the classic cocktail
June 19, 2020 Updated: June 25, 2020

For many imbibers, the gin and tonic is a go-to warm-weather drink. A refreshing balance of botanicals and bitterness, plus a light burst of effervescence make it perfect for languid summer nights at home.

Made with just three ingredients, the simple cocktail has a surprisingly colorful history. Before becoming the drink of summer soirées, it played the role of safeguarding against a warmer climate epidemic: malaria.

The Botanical That Defines Gin

Gin is a clear, neutral spirit distilled from grain and steeped or infused with juniper berries during the distillation process. Juniper is the ingredient that defines gin, and gives it its distinct piney character. Other botanicals are added to layer in flavors, such as angelica, cardamom, coriander, licorice root, and citrus peel. 

Epoch Times Photo
Juniper berries, gin’s defining botanical. (Melica/Shutterstock)

The word “gin” is derived from “genever,” Dutch for juniper. Therein lies a hint at some of the spirit’s early roots: Genever is also the name of a malted white spirit that originated in Holland during the late 1500s, which included juniper to make it more palatable and give it curative properties. 

When the Dutch Prince William of Orange became Britain’s King William III in 1689, he brought his passion for genever with him. The British made their own version, known as gin.

From ‘Mother’s Ruin’ to Gin Palaces

According to Anthony Pullen, gin-thusiast and vice president of trade marketing for Q Mixers, “English gin was much harsher and cheaply made when compared to Dutch genever, which was perceived as premium.”

Gin in 1700s Britain was used as a medicinal to treat indigestion and gout; mothers even administered it to quiet crying babies. It was mass-produced and affordable for those of modest means, but overconsumption and addiction among working-class men and women became a health and economic crisis. Fetal alcohol syndrome was a problem among newborn babies, giving birth to the reference to gin as “mother’s ruin.”  

The British Parliament intervened and legislated a series of eight Gin Acts between 1729 and 1751, raising taxes on the spirit. Now expensive, gin became popular among the upper class. 

During the 1800s, elaborate bars called gin palaces served as clubby gathering spots for London’s high society. Gin’s gentrification introduced a generation of premium gin entrepreneurs, such as Charles Tanqueray (Tanqueray), Alexander Gordon (Gordon’s), and James Burrough (Beefeater).

Three ingredients: gin, tonic water, and lime. (Dragomir Ralchev/Unsplash)

A Tonic to Fight Malaria

Tonic water contains quinine, a bitter compound extracted from the bark of the quinquina, or cinchona tree, native to South America. Indigenous Peruvians used the bark to reduce fever and chills. The tree’s use as a fever cure gave root to another moniker: “fever tree.”

After Spanish Jesuits settled in Peru in the late 1500s, they discovered the medicinal benefits of cinchona bark. One historical account attributes the tree’s name to the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the viceroy of Peru, who was cured of malaria and brought the bark back to Spain.

Dutch, British, and French merchants also brought back seeds from the fever tree to replant in their respective colonies throughout the Caribbean, Indonesia, and Africa.

Initially, the bark was dried and ground into a fine powder and mixed with water and a little wine for taste, to drink. In 1820, scientists Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou isolated and identified the purified extract from the cinchona tree as a cure for malaria, naming it quinine, after the tree. 

For many years, quinine served as an effective cure for the disease. During the 1800s, British troops stationed in India took to mixing packets of powdered quinine with water and a little sugar, to adjust the flavor, for a bitter medicinal drink they called “Indian tonic water.” Gin and lemon or lime slices were added to make the medicine go down easier, resulting in an early “gin and tonic.” Permission was granted for a daily gin and tonic to keep everyone healthy.

Carbonation, invented by British scientist Joseph Priestley in the late 18th century, was added to the drink for freshness and to temper the bitterness of quinine, and in 1871, Swiss beverage producer Johann Jacob Schweppe, introduced the first carbonated tonic water.

Gin and tonic continued to be a popular libation among troops throughout the British Empire, as well as with the leisure class. During World War II, American soldiers serving in both Europe and the Pacific discovered the gin and tonic as both a curative and refreshing spirited libation, and brought the drinking tradition back to the States.

Much like in England, the gin and tonic became the preferred warm-weather drink at country clubs and cocktail parties.

Just Three Ingredients

The gin and tonic is an ideal pre-meal aperitif, able to prep the palate without being too sweet or heavy.

First, choose your gin; the spirit comes in multiple styles. 

The most popular for gin and tonics is a London dry gin, whose juniper-forward notes balance the bitter in the tonic. Contrary to what its name might suggest, London dry doesn’t have to be made in London, but it must follow specific EU production regulations, such as using a neutral grain spirit, all-natural botanicals, minimal sweetness, and at least 37.5 percent alcohol by volume in the final distillation.

“Some producers refer to gin as London dry, meaning juniper-forward and traditional, but the term is not just about the flavor,” noted Olivier Ward, editor and co-founder of Gin Foundry, a hub for gin-thusiasts. “You could have a floral or very citrusy London dry. The designation applies to how the gin is made.” 

Other designations of gin include Old Tom, which is slightly sweeter and less botanical; Plymouth gin, an earthier style exclusively made in Plymouth, England; and Navy Strength gin, which is at least 57 percent alcohol by volume.

Tonic water also has different styles, from the more austere Indian tonic water, which is more bitter, to aromatic versions with elderflower, cucumber, or other botanicals. All are carbonated and sweetened. Look for brands that use natural ingredients, such as Q Mixers and Fever-Tree; the latter provides a helpful online guide to pairing styles of gin with tonic.

Q Mixers’ Pullen also offered some guidance: “Pair more floral-forward gins, such as Bulldog and Aviation, which have lavender notes, with an aromatic tonic like Q Elderflower Tonic. A juniper-forward London dry gin like Bluecoat would pair with a Q Indian Tonic.”

“The ratio of tonic to gin is also important,” Ward added. “Too much bitter quinine can mask the gin; not enough carbonation deflates the zest.” He suggests a ratio of one part gin to two parts tonic water, or up to four parts tonic for more aromatic gins.

Adding Some Spanish Flair

Britain may be recognized for the classic gin and tonic, but Spain adds the flair. In fact, Spain is the world’s largest consumer of gin.

The Spanish gin tonic (no “and”) was popularized in the early 2000s, during the country’s gastronomic revolution. The drink became chefs’ off-duty libation of choice.

“Gin and tonics became a popular beverage for restaurant cooks to cool down [with] after working in hot kitchens,” Pullen said. “They would mix a little gin and a large amount of tonic in red wine glasses filled with ice, and garnish with the fruits and herbs from their prep stations.” 

Instead of the highball glass used in the British version, the Spanish serve their drink in a copa de balón, a special glass with a bulbous shape that resembles a red wine glass. The shape enhances the aromas of the gin and allows for a higher quantity of carbonated tonic water to alcohol.

Ice cubes (never crushed!) keep the drink cold, and garnishes may include slices of fruits and vegetables or sprigs of herbs.

Classic Gin and Tonic

  • 1.5 ounce gin
  • 5 ounces tonic water 
  • Lime or lemon wedge

Fill a highball glass with cubed ice (not crushed). Add gin. Add tonic water. Garnish with lime or lemon wedge and serve cold.

Recipe courtesy of Q Mixers

Melanie Young writes about wine, food, travel, and health. She co-hosts the weekly national radio show “The Connected Table LIVE!” and hosts “Fearless Fabulous You!” both on iHeart.com. Twitter@connectedtable