The Truth About Tonic Water (And Why We Drink it With Gin!)

by Mama Loves A Drink

Deciphering our favourite gin mixer

We are probably all familiar with tonic water from G&T but what exactly is it?

If your “mixer”- that’s the non-alcoholic part of your cocktail – actually makes up the vast proportion of your drink, then it makes sense you make sure the mixer is equally as tasty as your spirit.

Those oft-overlooked factors lead me down the garden path of finding out more about what’s really in my mixers – specially tonic water.

I kept hearing if I was a true Brit I should be drinking Fever-Tree with my gin. But a quick walk down the drinks aisle at Waitrose left me even more overwhelmed. Would be 1.25 litre Schweppes Diet Tonic really put me to shame if I open it at a dinner party, surely it’s ‘”better”for me?

It’s time to do some digging….

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What is Tonic Water made of?

Tonic water is basically sugared water – well, carbonated water to be precise with small quantities of citric acid and quinine. You can mix these in different ways and it actually comes up with quite a bitter result, as supposed to sweet.

So what is this quinine?

Quinine is what creates the gentle bitterness of tonic water. It is derived from the bark of the Cinchona tree (also known colloquially as “fever trees”).

Although legend goes that quinine powder was given to British soldiers stationed in India as an anti-malarial, which was then mixed with gin to make a palatable drink, the tree does not originate from India. Cinchona Officinalis originates from a shurb grown at high altitudes in South America, it belongs to the Rubiaceae species of plants.

The plant was imported to Europe, it’s believed as far back as the 17th century as a medicinal plant.

What is Indian Tonic Water?

Perhaps a misnomer as the cinchona is not a native plant to India, though it has been grown there since 1859. But it is understood that this where the actual drink of mixing quinine with carbonated water was invented, so we’ll let them lay claim for the mixer itself.

The quinine in “modern” tonic water is no where near the quantities that were taken for medicinal purposes but the faint bitterness remains.

What is diet tonic water made of then?

Diet tonic water still has carbonated water and quinine, but the sugar is replaced with an artificial sweetener – the exact type of artificial sweetener varies by brand.

Most large drinks manufacturers typically use “high fructose corn syrup” as the sweetener in their basic tonic water. This is replaced with sodium saccharin or aspartame – artificial sweeteners in a “diet” version.

“Refreshingly Light” – the Fever-Tree branded diet version uses naturally sourced fruit sugars to sweeten the drink. It is not “calorie free” like other sweetener-based mixers but a 200ml mixer will deliver only 38 calories.

Cinchona bark - used to make quinine in tonic water
Cinchona bark – where quinine is derived from

What is Mediterranean tonic water?

The base ingredients and use of quinine is the same, however further aromatics sourced are added. Benefiting from the warm Mediterranean Sea air, essential oils from plants such as rosemary and lemon thyme make for a lighter, much more fragrant tonic.

Other variations on tonic water

There are plenty of newer tonic waters creeping into the market, each with their own subtle variations on the traditional tonic. The base remains the same – carbonated water, citric acid, some form of sweetener – be it sugar or a “diet” version, and of course, quinine.

Pre-mix tonics take out a lot of the guess work and make for a ready-made drink in seconds, hence their popularity.

Why does it pair so well with gin?

It’s all in that word “botanicals”. Gin is primarily made from Juniper berries and when mixed with the quinine from the tonic, the individual molecules are attracted to each other. Tiny new molecules – or aggregates – are created which hit our taste receptors in our nose and in our mouth.

Juniper berries on a wooden spoon
Juniper berries – the key ingredient of gin

It all gets a little more scientific and complicated than that – but we can pretty much confirm gin and tonic are a match made in heaven!

Enjoyed this? Head on over to read all our facts about gin!

Mama Loves A Drink advocates quality over quantity. Always drink responsibly!

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