by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
Gin and tonics are the perfect summer drink—bristling with fresh botanical notes of aromatics such as juniper and balanced by tart, crisp and sweet tonic mixers. Despite tonic’s seemingly second-fiddle role in this classic cocktail, its roots are unsurprisingly medicinal and, at the drink’s advent, the roles of the two ingredients were reversed. Gin was the mixer of choice for the daily doses of intensely bitter, quinine-laden tonic imbibed by early-1800s British colonizers to fend off malaria.
Of course, by the time the colonizers had become wise to quinine, the quinine-rich bark of the South American cinchona tree (with dozens of assorted shrubs and trees within the Cinchona genus) had already been in use for centuries—first by Andean tribes (who called it the quina-quina tree) for fever and heart issues, and then throughout the 17th century for malaria after a Jesuit priest discovered its anti-malarial effectiveness. The tree was renamed in the mid-18th century by Europeans after the bark cured a Spanish countess suffering from malaria.
A spoonful of sugar did indeed help the medicine go down with a splash of soda water, but the addition of gin was the beginning of tonic’s transition from medicine to standard bar staple. As a result of World War II and quinine shortages, synthetic alternatives became the standard in modern commercial tonic waters. But thanks to the cocktail revolution of the early 2000s, discerning tonic drinkers now have an array of artisanal tonic water brands to choose from—most of which are made from cinchona bark and without highly processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup.
Cinchona bark’s bitterness makes it a suitable ingredient in aromatic bitters, vermouth and other digestive liqueurs, too. Making tonic water at home is a way to craft the mixer to complement its glass-mate. The end result is an amber-colored syrup that adds a layer of tart and zing to a simple glass of soda water, dresses up the classic colonial cocktail and allows the home mixologist a new layer of flavor to explore with other libations. To take handcrafted tonic to a Chinese medicinal definition of true tonic, try adding tonic botanicals such as ginseng root, hawthorn or goji berries or dried blueberries. These add a powerful mini-cocktail of compounds that are used in Eastern medicine to address overly stressed immune systems and support the body’s ability to produce and build cellular structures.
Cinchona bark powder and flakes can be found online and from herb shops. If using the flaked form of the bark in the recipe below, use a spice grinder to grind the flakes into a powder. Citrus and lemongrass and citric acid are standard in all the recipes I explored. The best place to find citric acid is in the bulk section of larger grocery stores. The aromatics in the recipe are relatively easy to find and I encourage experimentation in this realm—the possibilities in flavor are endless.