The gin in your tonic was first used to mask the bitter taste of medicinal quinine
At the British Book Awards a few years ago I sat at a table with the late Clarissa Dickson Wright. The venue had a reputation for awful food (and very small portions) so Clarissa had taken the precaution of bringing an enormous pork pie from Paxton & Whitfield. In between booing at mentions of Russell Brand and Tesco, she snacked on pieces of pie while glaring at anyone who came too close.
It wasn’t just the pork pies that gave her that formidable stature: it was a surfeit of tonic water. For 12 years, until she sobered up, she claimed to have drunk six pints of gin and tonic a day. During a Radio 4 interview, Clarissa explained how the quinine in the tonic had interfered with her adrenal gland so she had “a constant drip feed of adrenaline, which gives me a lot of energy ... but it also means that I metabolise incredibly slowly, because I’m permanently in the state as if I was running away from a sabre-toothed tiger.” From the way she guarded that pork pie, I think it would have been the tiger that would have done the running away.
The lesson is that tonic water isn’t just something to swill with your gin; it’s powerful stuff. Quinine, taken in the form of bark from the cinchona tree, was taken to alleviate the effects of malaria. It originally came only from the Spanish colonies in South America. The British struggled without a regular supply. In one disastrous encounter during the Napoleonic wars, known as the Walcheren Expedition, 106 British soldiers died in combat, but over 4,000 died from malaria.
Eventually the Spanish hold on the trade was broken when the British successfully grew cinchona trees in India and Ceylon, and the Dutch in Java. The next step was the invention of a solution to make the consumption of the bitter quinine easier. At first they were sold as tonics (hence the name), but they proved so popular when mixed with gin to alleviate the taste of the quinine that they were soon marketed to consumers. Schweppes, founded in 1783 by a Swiss scientist, Johann Schweppe, launched its Indian Tonic Water in 1870.
Tonic water can be a rather overbearing mixer. It doesn’t help that most of them are extremely sweet. If you really want to let the taste of your fancy gin sing, try Fever Tree, whose tonic is drier and cleaner than the norm. Even then you really need a gin with a good dose of juniper: none of these namby-pamby floral numbers. I’m particularly partial to Brighton Gin, which manages to be both elegant and forceful enough to hold its own against the tonic. Just remember what Clarissa taught us: don’t drink too many G&Ts, and guard you pork pies fiercely.
Henry Jeffreys is a drinks writer based in London. His first book, Empire of Booze, will be published by Unbound in 2016. Twitter: @henrygjeffreys
Tonic originally was used for medical purposes. It became popular to disguise the bitter taste of the quinine, which helped fight malaria, with gin. Photograph: Alamy