Gin & Tonic – A Journey Through Time

The origins of the Gin & Tonic differ from that of most mixed drinks. It wasn’t invented by a famous mixologist from the pre-prohibition era. It didn’t bring fame and renown to any luxurious turn of the century hotel bar. No famous bartending guides list it among their most cherished libations. And yet, the history of this drink is one steeped in international and domestic politics, global expansionism, agriculture, and even medicine. It is not just a confluence of ingredients, however, but also of nations and cultures. Every time we mix a Gin & Tonic, we retell the story of several countries, on three continents, over a period of two hundred years. There’s scant ambiguity to its history, and very little debate as to its timeless endurance.

While most of us view gin as the quintessential British spirit, this was not always the case. Believed to be invented by Dr. Fransiscus Sylvuis, a Dutch scientist and Professor of Medicine at Leyden, Holland, the first gin was a distillate of neutral grain spirits flavored with the essential oils of the juniper berry, and was intended to aid people with kidney diseases. Juniper berries had been a favorite remedy for a host of maladies for hundreds of years, going back in Europe as far as the plague, and they were used to combat everything from circulation issues, to fever, to poor digestion, and an excess of other issues. Sylvuis termed his concoction “Jenever,” after the French “Genie vre” meaning Juniper, and, by 1655, it was being produced commercially. The best versions that became part of Dutch culture used malt-wine as the base of fermentation. English soldiers fighting in the Netherlands during the Dutch War of Independence developed an affinity for Jenever (pronounced Gen-ee’-vurr.) They watched, captivated, as Dutch soldiers threw back gulps of the booze and charged headfirst into battle, earning Jenever the nickname “Dutch Courage.” Soon, English soldiers returning home to Britain were bringing bottles of “the courage” with them, and it didn’t take long before the whole country was smitten with Jenever, eventually shortened to “Jen” and finally “Gin.” This Gin was very different from the Gin we know today. Take a swig from a bottle of Bols Genever and you’ll see what I mean. True Genever is malty, and has an air of age to it. Imagine mixing gin with irish whiskey, and a little bit of sugar, an idea that even cocktail historian David Wondrich admits “works tolerably well in Punches and the like, but less so in Cocktails.”

The Revolution of 1688 brought about the next major step in the evolution of Gin. William of Orange disposed of England’s Catholic monarch, King James II, and became William III, the new king of England. A year later, William banned the import of French Brandy, and levied serious duties on German alcohol, virtually guaranteeing a market for Dutch spirits. He also ended a royal monopoly on distilled spirits that allowed English farmers to distill from local grain. In 1695, the British raised taxes on beer, making gin the cheapest beverage in England. This created a gin boom that lasted for decades, and gin consumption became so rampant that new laws would have to be enacted to curb what was being called the “Gin Craze.” During this time, as happens any time the market becomes saturated with a cheap product with near limitless demand, product quality waned. Harsh distillate was sweetened with sugar to seem more palatable, and the precursor to Old Tom Gin was born. Old Tom Gin was called so because many of the Gin Shops around London would place a small wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an old tom cat) on the outside of the pub. A customer need only drop a coin into a small slot on the side of the plaque and gin would be dispensed from the cat’s mouth. Eventually, laws like The Tippling Act of 1751 were passed that eliminated smaller gin shops and left the distribution to larger distilleries and retailers. In the late 1800’s, the invention of the column still also helped to solidify the gin we know today as London Dry, a style made so clean and so well that it didn’t need sugar or other flavorings to mask deficiencies. London Dry, a style dominated by the flavor of the juniper berry, remained the benchmark for over a hundred years, until products like Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray Malacca opened the door to a host of new, less juniper-dominated gins dubbed “New Western Gins.”

The second and more variable ingredient in the Gin and Tonic, is the tonic itself. Tonic is essentially a delivery system for quinine, an anti-malarial alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona tree. The Quechua people, indigenous to Peru, were the first to discover the fever-reducing, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties of the cinchona tree. The Incas used quinine, derived from steeping the bark in water (or even better in alcohol), as a muscle relaxant used to halt shivering due to low temperatures. As it turns out, the same pharmacological properties that make quinine effective at treating shivering also make it effective against the deadly malaria virus, and its fever-inducing chills.

Soon, Spanish Jesuit missionaries discovered the beneficial effects of quinine first-hand.  The tree itself is named after the Countess of Chinchona, the wife of a Spanish viceroy to Peru. In 1638, after falling ill and finding no remedy for her malady, the Spanish doctors enlisted the help of the Quechua in saving the life of the Countess. The cinchona tea spared her from death, and the history of quinine on the European continent began. Due to the demand of quinine in Europe to battle malaria and other diseases, the Jesuit priests began smuggling seeds and saplings out of South America. Concerned with facing lost revenue, Peru immediately outlawed the export of any form of cinchona other than bark or extract, a form they could control. In the mid 1800’s, South America maintained a near monopoly on cinchona bark, exporting nearly two millions pounds annually. During this monopoly, however, demand began to exceed supply. British and Dutch soldiers in East Asia needed quinine to battle the incessant malaria that was so prevalent at the time. In turn, prices for Peruvian cinchona bark skyrocketed, and in 1862, an entrepreneur named Charles Ledger aimed to do something about it. Ledger smuggled cinchona seeds out of Peru and sold them to the Dutch government. The Dutch, in turn, began transferring the new strains to island plantations in Ceylon and Java. Without this new, abundant source of quinine, the colonization of East Asia may have been halted at the doorstep of malaria.

For almost a century, Indonesia supplied close to 95% of the world’s quinine. But in 1942, Japan attacked and took control of Indonesia to secure oil for the war effort. The Allied powers would summon a meeting, as important as the Manhattan Project, to discover a way to produce synthetic quinine. Thus, we have commercial quinine extract, added to tonic water, and the beginning of the end for natural quinine production.

The British Navy had always been drinkers. Rum rations went back as far as the mid seventeenth century. British officers long knew of the horrors of scurvy, a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. For decades the navy battled this by adding to a daily rum ration a dose of lime juice, forming the basis of grog (or rum, sugar, and lime). As a side note, alcoholic proof was also invented at this time, meaning the minimum amount of alcohol in rum that could be lit on fire with gunpowder. Hence were the ways sailors ensured they were not being cheated out of booze by their superiors. Those same superiors, however, drank the Queen’s gin, not bottom-feeders’ rum, and soon the sailors rations were reduced to limit alcohol consumption. When Britain began the colonization of East Asia, they found themselves at the vortex of history, necessity, and convenience. Quinine, in the form of tonic water, was crucial in the prevention of malaria. Lime juice not only prevented scurvy but gave life to a mixed drink, a little acidity to wake up other flavors. Sugar was as important as any other ingredient to balance flavor; and it wasn’t too long before someone decided that the most ubiquitous of all British liquor should be added for good measure. After all, if you had to take your medicine, you’d want it to not only taste good, but knock you around a little as well. And thus, we have the gin and tonic cocktail, the final step in a two-hundred year road to cocktail perfection, the likes of which was as unprecedented as it was unmatched.

We are lucky to live in the current revival of mixology that dominates the present day. New gins from America as well as the rest of the world have begun to be taken as seriously as those recipes from the past that are now being recreated. Bartenders and mixologists have more than just new gins to play with, however. Tonics such as Tomr’s, Fentiman’s, Q-Tonic, and Fever Tree provide fresh quinine without added high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, and other adulterants. Like all artisan spirits and mixers, some work well in certain applications and some work well in others. When it doubt, experimentation is the gateway to deliciousness, and what might be good for some may be disastrous to others. While gin itself is legally complicated to produce, tonic water is not, and a quick romp through a health food store or two might yield you enough ingredients to make your own. As is the motto of this web site, when you can make your own mixers, from fresh ingredients, you’re obligated to try.

Below is listed my starting point for homemade tonic water. It’s a combination of a couple of solid recipes from other bartenders, presented here to familiarize the everyday drinker to the world of craft mixers, using products you can get at your local Whole Foods. In no way is this a be-all-end-all recipe designed to fill every niche. Some gins like Bluecoat and Tanqueray 10 play well off of citrusy components. Aviation might play better off of spice. And even juniper heavy London Dry Gins can have flavors accentuated by other ingredients. The key is to keep playing with things until they work out the way you like to taste them, and even then, there’s always more experimenting to do. The following recipe contains some easy to gather ingredients that play particularly well with a wide variety of gins. As always, when looking to match with specific spirits, some items will need to be dropped or added. Consider this a starting point and go from there.

Tonic Syrup:

Bring to a boil –

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 cup chopped lemongrass (chop like celery, using all but the last inch of the stalk.)
  • .25 cup ground cinchona bark (a heavy-duty spice/coffee grinder works well, or just purchase ground cinchona bark. Nature’s Wonderland is a good start.)
  • 3 fine zest of lime (a Microplane works well. Avoid long strips as with a vegetable peeler.) & juice
  • 2 fine zest of lemon & juice
  • 1 fine zest of orange & juice
  • 1 fine zest of grapefruit
  • 3 Tbsp. Citric Acid (many recipes call for twice this amount, but I think it’s overkill. Experiment freely.)

Additional ingredients to play around with, depending on the Gin you use:

  • 1 Tbsp. allspice berries
  • 1 Tbsp. coriander
  • 1 Tbsp. bitter orange peel
  • 1 tsp. lavender
  • 1 tsp. cardamom pods
  • 1 Tbsp. chamomile
  • 1 tsp. grains of paradise

After boiling, reduce to a covered simmer for 25 minutes. When the time is up, strain out the solid ingredients and filter the resulting tea through a couple rounds of coffee filters and/or cheesecloth. Let the liquid sit for an hour or two in a French Press, and decant into a quart container to remove the remaining solids.

Add the resulting tea back to a clean pot. Heat to a simmer and add .75 cup of sugar for every cup of liquid. Dissolve and remove from stove to let cool. The syrup will be brown, no two ways about it. Give it your all when it comes to filtering out sediment before you add the sugar and you’ll be in better shape. The color will not, however, turn clear, no matter how much you work at it. Such is the way life goes.

In a highball glass filled with ice, mix:

  • 2oz of Gin
  • .75oz – 1oz of tonic syrup
  • Top with soda and splash of lime.

It is also possible (and maybe even advisable) to mix the tonic syrup with distilled water in a carbonator (such as an iSi), and carbonate to order. The bubbles will last longer than mineral water and the texture of the drink will not suffer.


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