#52Drinks52Weeks – Tonic Water

With Peru, Spain, France, Holland, Britain, Indonesia, India, and Africa contributing to perfecting the beverage over a span of over 500 years, Tonic Water has come a long way. From being a global medicinal drink to that of choice of the British Raj in India, tonic water was once as precious as gold.

Sommelier Magandeep SINGH and Gagan SHARMA share the long and lesser-told story of Tonic Water, the Indian Tonic Water, and how it shaped cultures over centuries.


Tonic water has murky beginnings – no absolute clarity as to where it all began.


Spanish colonists discovered a treatment for Malaria in the bark of the Quinquina tree. 1638, one account insists that the fateful encounter was the result of the wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Peru, the Countess of Chinchon (In Spain, near Madrid), falling ill with Malaria. The Quechua (Inca) peoples had long understood the Cinchona tree’s ability to stop shivers in cold temperatures. The potion worked and she quickly recovered.

And when the Count and Countess of Chinchon returned to their castle and lands in Spain, in 1640, where malaria was rife, the Countess took her miracle powder with her. It was, thus, called the “Countess’s powder” or simply bark from the “fever tree” 


It’s a known fact that then the Spaniards and the French were a team, while the British and the Portuguese worked together.

By 1817, French scientists Pelletier and Caventou found a method for extracting the bark’s most medically powerful compound, quinine. They established a factory to isolate quinine from the bark and sold the drug as a means of preventing Malaria.

France of Dubonnet, the wine-based aperitif and favourite of the late Queen Mother. This tonic wine was invented in 1846 by Joseph Dubonnet, using a blend of herbs and quinine, and was said to be commissioned by the government to tempt the French Foreign Legion to take their antimalarial medication while abroad. 

In 1841 the English Journal complained of ‘a visit to Holland, where gin and quinine must be drunk to keep malaria away’. In the military, however, gin wasn’t yet popular.

The powers of South America were growing. In 1860 alone, South America exported around two million pounds of Cinchona bark to Britain and the United States. A South American monopoly combined with over- harvesting pushed Cinchona trees to the brink of extinction.

Quinine became as valuable as gold. 


With Peru still prohibiting exporting Cinchona seeds, both the British and the Dutch turned to smuggling cinchona seeds out of South America and set upon a race to find a way to supply their own demand. 

1860s, Charles Ledger infamously smuggled Cinchona seedlings out of Peru and sold them to the Dutch government. Holland set up large plantations in Java, their colony in Indonesia. By World War I, (1914 – 1918) the Dutch nearly monopolised the quinine trade from their plantations in Java, supplying 95% of the world’s quinine

Perhaps equally importantly, by the 1880s cheap and dependable supplies of quinine – a key ingredient of tonic water – became available from the India, Sri Lanka and Java plantations. All the 19th century references to gin and tonic, from 1868 onwards, are from India and many but not all have military connections.

By 1870, Schweppes used the appropriate name Indian Tonic Water for its tonic water.

During World War II, (1939-1945) Japanese occupied Java, and planted Quinine in Africa. Today, most comes from there.


In 1825, British officers had already began mixing gin with their daily ration of quinine tonic and unwittingly, had invented a potent precursor to the classic Gin and Tonic. After the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (or the “Indian Mutiny”), the British Crown took over the governance of India from the British East India Company and strengthened its presence on the subcontinent. 

Many credit its invention to officers in the Indian Army taking their daily bitter quinine dose washed down with gin and soda. Some date this as early as 1825, unlikely that this is the true origin, and no records or references have been found to support this.

INDIAN ARMY – In the British Army it seems that whichever spirits were most handy were used, most often brandy, whisky, rum, wine or local spirits. An 1863 report on the army in India and Ceylon records that quinine doses were given daily in b, a locally distilled spirit. Rum or ‘grog’ was the preferred Navy tipple for taking a dose.

AT THE BAR – The first known reference to gin and tonic as a bar cocktail is in the Anglo-Indian Oriental Sporting Magazine in 1868, a decade after the first patented quinine tonic water. The term was evidently a familiar phrase in India, being called out by attendees of a horse race at Sealkote (Sialkot), in current Punjab of Pakistan, as they finish for the evening

GIN OVER BEER – England’s sailors often found themselves traveling to destinations where malaria was prevalent, so they brought quinine rations to help prevent and fight the disease. Quinine tasted notoriously awful, so Schweppes (1870s) came out with an “Indian Tonic Water” to make it palatable. London Dry Gin accompanied the sailors on these voyages. It was in fashion at the time and made for better cargo than beer, as the latter quickly spoiled in the sweltering bellies of ships. So, like true Englishmen, eventually the two liquids were combined to form what is now the classic gin cocktails. Limes were added due to their b properties, thus birthing the term “limey,” a moniker for sailors. Cordials were made to preserve the limes, and a lime cordial and gin were inevitably combined (hello, Gimlet).


Quinine was the only effective Malaria treatment for over 300 years – now it isn’t.

It was taken daily as a preventative, not just a cure. The recommended amount was one to two grains per day, in sherry or another alcoholic drink – between 65 and 130 milligrams.

A modern tonic water contains a maximum of 83 milligrams of quinine in a litre.  It may not be a preventive dose but surely aids in digestion.

A light-hearted research trial in 2004. This measured quinine blood levels after volunteers downed between 500ml and 1,000 ml of tonic water in 15 minutes. Even with this quantity, tests showed only a brief and minimal protective effect against malaria.

“Cinchonism” symptoms include headache, nausea, ringing in the ears, and in more extreme cases, loss of hearing and vision.

NOW – A controversial, highly processed sugar derived from cornstarch, called High Fructose Corn Sugar (HFCS) is used as a sweetener. It is extremely dangerous and unhealthy. The today tonic has approximately 3 times the sugar as fruit juice.

What we do know is the the ‘Indian Tonic Water’ is a recipe with lesser sugar and higher citrus than any other tonic water style. Also, it uses Saccharine than HFSC, which is comparatively less dangerous, but it is still sugar and is unhealthy.

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