The gin and tonic is arguably the world's favorite highball. Blissfully botanical gin, bubbly tonic and a squeeze of fresh citrus make for a leisurely, refreshing cocktail that always helps to beat the summer heat. While the drink was a staple of the British colonial era, the gin and tonic is relatively new in the United States, first appearing in bars in the 1930s. Drinks containing gin and citrus were staples almost a hundred years before that, but we had to wait on what today remains a somewhat elusive American ingredient: quinine. Great G&Ts, after all, use great tonic water - which is never, under any circumstances, found guzzling from the sticky mouth of a standard bar gun.
The modern U.S. tonic market is dominated by brands such as Schweppes, Seagram's and Canada Dry, in addition to whichever syrupy option your local bar has hidden in 50-pound cardboard boxes lined with plastic sacks. High-fructose-corn-syrup-charged and cloyingly sweet, G&Ts made with these brands might more accurately be labeled as "Gin and Sprites." They hardly have any of the characteristics that one should expect from a drink with tonic.
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Tonic water was once an actual tonic used to protect British soldiers from the threats of scurvy and malaria. Quinine is a crystalline alkaloid sourced from the bark of the cinchona tree that is today still used in medicines and some spirits and liqueurs. Originally, tonic water was simply quinine water, but its extremely bitter flavor made it a horribly offensive tonic. So in an effort to improve its drinkability, sugar, citrus, gin (Brits, remember?) and other flavors were added. Eventually, gin and tonics evolved into delicious, slightly bitter, yet refreshing cocktails that had nothing to do with vitamin C deficiencies and mosquitoes and everything to do with having a great time.
At best, however, U.S. access to legitimate tonic water lasted around 40 years before most domestic soda companies instituted widespread shifts to corn syrup and cheaper ingredients. Today, tonic has yet to recover from the onslaught of the modern American manufacturing process. Fortunately, there are a few companies who supply boutique tonic waters, and they are becoming more widely available each day. Here are three brands to seek out:
- Q Tonic, the obsession of creator Jordan Sibert, should be credited with leading this charge. His tonic water is made with organic agave nectar and Peruvian quinine, and it's specifically crafted as an ingredient for G&Ts - though it is great alone as well. It has an extremely clean, refined flavor and mouthfeel that starkly contrasts other brands.
- Fever Tree also produces an outstanding tonic water in addition to its other delicious small-batch sodas, including a ginger beer and a bitter lemon drink. Each is delicious, but the tonic water is the obvious standout.
- Nowadays, Schweppes is also importing its Indian Tonic water on a somewhat regular basis. As opposed to its common label, the Indian Tonic Water is a legitimate contender as the best option for gin and tonics. It would be nice to see other major soda companies follow suit and import or produce other boutique alternatives, but we aren't holding our breath.
If you've never had a gin and tonic made with quality tonic water, you're missing out on what one of the world's best cocktails is supposed to taste like. It is amazing what a difference these small-batch brands make, and it is easy to see why gin and tonics have never been better. But just like anything else in the world of cocktails, using quality ingredients makes all the difference - even in the simplest of drinks.