A Tonic for Our Time


The origin of tonic water is a global tale of survival, colonisation, foreign outposts and smart ingenuity. Today, tonic is more about gin than curing disease.

England, India, Niger, Peru, Indonesia and Ecuador; the story of tonic is a truly global tale.

You might think tonic is a simple and natural match to gin, but originally it was matched to malaria. Tonic and malaria may not sound nearly as enticing as gin and tonic, however it was malaria which brought tonic to the attention of the gin drinkers in the British Empire.

You might be familiar with quinine, the key ingredient of tonic water. Quinine is what brings the bitter flavour to tonic. And quinine was used long ago to cure to malaria in Peruvian tribes before the Spanish ever arrived. It eventually became more accessible via Jesuit priests and Spanish colonialists, but was first used by a Scottish doctor on expedition in Niger, Africa to prevent rather than cure malaria.

With quinine heralded as an effective measure to counter the severe and often deadly malaria disease, people came to ingest it in a variety of ways. A common way was to add it to alcoholic beverages directly.

Alcohol such as rum and brandy were frequently used medicinally until the early 1900s for all types of ails, therefore a little quinine to a measure of rum was seen as a worthy way to prevent this mosquito born disease.

In hot climates like India, quinine mixed with fizzy water became a preferred and more refreshing form to consume quinine. Erasmus Bond packaged and patented this new mix for Pitt & Co as ‘Tonic Water’:


“Its properties are antacid, cooling and refreshing, combined with all the advantages of Soda Water; it gives strength to the stomach and tone to the whole nervous system, and is especially adapted to persons feeling depressed from mental or bodily excitement, imparting strength to those who suffer from nervous irritation, indigestion, or loss of appetite.”

Tonic Water
Malaria continues to be a harmful disease but gin & tonic is no longer the prescribed cure.

Tonic water was praised for all sorts of health properties, but in the 1850s quinine was not so easy to come by. 

Its only natural source is the South American ‘Cinchona’ tree. Grown on the western slopes of The Andes, the indigenous people of Peru and Ecuador knew of the healing properties held in the bark of the Cinchona.

The Spanish explorers came to understand its power particularly for curing malaria, and generated compounds of the bark which came to be known by some as ‘Peruvian Bark’.

But it was the British through The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens who learned how to cultivate plantations of the the Cinchona tree, which they came to call  ‘the fever tree’ for its ability to lessen fevers in the body.

Their work enabled the British to grow the Cinchona tree in India and the Dutch learned to do the same in Indonesia; places where the climate was best suited to this exotic and now highly valuable species.

With the growth of quinine as a commodity people in the colonies, the military and other colonial settlers began to consume tonic water mixed with rations of gin, lime and sugar as a matter of daily life and leisure. Tonic thus became more of a refreshing drink in the heat of the sub-continent than an anti-malarial treatment.

Today, other remedies and pharmaceuticals are used to prevent malaria. And many tonic waters today, are made with an artificial quinine compound. But the original bark extract from the Cinchona tree can still be found in more ‘boutique’ styles of tonic, much like our very own Naught Tonic Water. 

The growth of gin and tonic as a popular cocktail has developed by chance rather than design.  We no longer require quinine in our daily diet but some might argue the value of tonic is as important today as it was in the colonial days of yesteryear.

References: The Kew Royal Gardens, Just The Tonic.