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Pour Some Tonic On It

Gin’s longtime companion has applications beyond the iconic pairing.

Tonic is more than just a bitter, bubbly backup singer touring exclusively with Dutch Courage. Capable of elongating anything on the bar, the historic medicinal elixir holds potential well beyond the most enduring highball of them all: the Gin and Tonic.

It’s jarring even to consider the dissolution of a duo as iconic as gin and tonic, which has gone steady since the 1800s thanks to a confluence of imperial drinking habits and mosquito-borne maladies. To quell malaria among its occupying populations in India, Britain prescribed colonizers in tropical climes powdered quinine, the fever-breaking alkaloid derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. It’s a treatment Europeans co-opted from indigenous South Americans centuries prior. 

Quinine provides tonic water the bracing rush that makes it a compelling mixer, but the febrifuge on its own can be hard to choke down. So patients started spiking it, but this booze-makes-it-better strategy did not begin with gin. In 1656, the Vatican received a batch of cinchona bark from Peru to distribute among stricken clergy and commoners, along with instructions that “it was to be given infused in white wine,” according to a 1928 article in The British Medical Journal. Another clinical application, circa 1682, combined cinchona with anise seed, parsley juice and claret. That one didn’t stick.

Water, lime and a slug of London dry, conversely, had staying power, and the Gin and Tonic endured well after quinine fell out of practical use. The first carbonated, bottled tonics, made with sugar and much less quinine, began hitting the market in the mid-19th century. The Vodka Tonic would come into vogue later, competing with, but never quite toppling, gin as tonic’s primary companion.

While neither element is English in origin, the Gin and Tonic remains closely associated with that culture’s consumptive psyche, and it’s just as much a staple in places like Holland, the birthplace of gin; the United States; and Spain, whose citizens suck down more gin than any other country. But tonic has many lesser-known applications, within these drinking traditions and others.

“Bartenders look at tonic as the perfect cocktail mixer,” says Mary Pellettieri, co-founder of the Milwaukee-based small-batch tonic maker Top Note. “It provides dilution, it’s bitter, it’s sweet and it’s a little sour, too. It’s everything wrapped up in one package.”

In Italy, bitter liqueurs like Campari are commonly cut with tonic for a palate-stimulating aperitivo. In France, it’s relied upon to stretch herbal liqueurs like Suze, as well as aged spirits like Calvados. Beloved as the Gin and Tonic may be in Spain and Portugal, both countries also follow cues from those 17th-century apothecaries, taking their tonic with fortified and aromatized wines, whether sherry, vermouth or white port.

The latter is a favorite of bar owner and consultant Richie Boccato, who operates the L.A. highball bar, The Slipper Clutch, and Brooklyn’s Fresh Kills, among other projects. At Wm. Farmer and Sons in Hudson, New York, for which Boccato consulted, white port and tonic appears on the menu. “[It’s] a more mellow, yet significantly more dynamic experience than the obligatory and ubiquitous G&T,” he says.

Also pulling inspiration from Iberian tradition is Greta Inglis, co-owner of El Vermut in the Southeast London neighborhood of Nunhead. She serves a number of imported Spanish vermouths in the traditional manner, over rocks in a copa glass garnished with an orange and an olive. But she also encourages guests to try vermouth with tonic, its own experience altogether. “I find the tonic cuts through the sweetness of vermouth and balances very well, making it a crisp and refreshing alternative,” says Inglis.

In line with the higher-proof Gin and Tonic, Phoebe Esmon, beverage manager of Nightbell in Asheville, N.C., likes to pit the grassy characteristics of a quality blanco tequila against bitter cinchona in her Wind, Water, Stone. Darker spirits, too, should have their say. “Flavors of whiskey or rum go really well with tonic,” says Thaddeus Dynakowski of High Street on Market in Philadelphia. “Sweeter notes, they’re asking for a little bitterness.”

Jeremy Rubinstein, bar manager of Chicago’s Soho House, has had success moving tonic-forward, seasonal variations on the Japanese whisky highball at the members-only establishment. He’s been able to convert guests who feel reticence toward tonic based on their perceived distaste for the classic Gin and Tonic by demonstrating its adaptability. “Tonic can be considered a bad word,” says Rubinstein, who’s in the early stages of developing his own house-made versions. “But people are expanding what they’re interested in drinking very quickly.”

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Tagged: cocktails, gin, recipes, tonic