A Brief History Of The Tonic Water In Your Gin And Tonic

iStock / iStock

Tonic water is everywhere. You can order it in a bar in Spain or buy it in a grocery store in the rural American South. But knowing its vibrant, thoroughly British history may earn you more cred than just drinking it.

Fizzing the time away

Centuries before scientists figured out how to force carbon dioxide into water, naturally carbonated spring water was drunk for its unique properties. Then, around 1767, Joseph Priestly suspended a bucket of water above a local brewery’s fermentation vat. He found that doing so resulted in a bubbly, refreshing, and pleasant water.

Five years later, Priestly published a paper on carbonating water by dissolving a combination of sulfuric acid and chalk into it. Later that century, a businessman named J. J. Schweppe used this approach to create a process to carbonate mineral water.

Hooked On Tonics

During this time, Britain was also racing to colonize the world. But in the colonies, malaria was running rampant, killing British citizens and locals alike. Though Europe had started eradicating the disease in the 19th century, it was still prevalent in the newly colonized parts of the world.

In the 17th century, Spanish explorers found that indigenous Peruvians used cinchona tree bark to treat fevers—and that it was effective. Nicknamed “Jesuit’s bark” for the missionaries who are thought to have brought it back to Europe, cinchona bark quickly became the go-to malaria treatment on the continent.

As its use spread, it became apparent that the quinine content of the bitter bark could both treat and prevent malaria. By the 1840s, British colonials in India alone were ingesting 700 tons of the bark every year.

Cinchona bark is extremely bitter, so someone mixed it with sugar and carbonated water to make it more palatable. In 1858, it was first marketed commercially. Around the same time, gin was shedding its less-than-positive reputation to become a (more) respectable drink. Thus, a classic was born.

Hit The Lab

Try fancying up your next gin and tonic with a dash of bitters (I love Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6) or by mixing gin with tonic syrup and topping with soda water.

Either way, thanks to the quinine in the cinchona bark, tonic fluoresces under UV light, making it the perfect addition for your next black light party.