Tonic water is carbonated water with sugar, quinine and fruit flavourings. The sugar is added to offset some of the bitterness of the quinine. It contains as much sugar as other soft drinks such as ginger ale, though you can buy sugar-free Tonic Waters now. The fruit extract used for flavouring is from citrus fruits, such as lemon or lime.
Connoisseurs consider Schweppes Tonic Water the best; in France, they will often drink it straight up, usually simply ordered as “une Schweppes.”
Besides Gin & Tonic, other drinks that use Tonic Water include Holy Water, Long Vodka, Matty’s Magic Mix, and the Tequila Boom-Boom.
It’s a myth that Tonic Water itself was intended as a cure for malaria, or even as preventive medicine.
At 27 mg quinine per 8 oz (240 ml), the amount of quinine in Tonic Water is reputedly too small to act as a drug, or even to interact with other drugs.
Quinine is used in malaria treatment. Quinine tablets contain anywhere from 200 to 350 mg of quinine. A sample treatment is 2 x 300 mg quinine tablets every 8 hours for 7 days. To equal that treatment level by drinking Tonic Water, you’d have to drink an awful lot of it — every 8 hours, you’d have to drink about 22 8 oz cups of it to replace the 2 x 300 mg tablets. If you drank all that mixed with gin, after the hospital had treated your malaria they might check you into the Betty Ford.
Quinine is also used to prevent night-time leg cramp in bed.
Tonic Water usually contains as much sugar as regular carbonated soft drinks.
Quinine is extracted from Cinchona Tree bark, native to the Andes, but which the British exported throughout the Empire. Cinchona Tree bark had been used by the Aztecs to treat fevers. It was apparently used to cure the wife of the Spanish viceroy of Peru in 1638, Countess Anna del Chinchon, and thus the name given later to the tree.
The British in India used quinine as a malaria cure. Quinine will destroy the parasites, but not completely, so treatment had to continue. Quinine is extremely bitter, so they’d mix it with their favourite tipple to help it go down. Their favourite tipple in the tropics was often gin. They actually got to like the bitter taste of it with their gin, so Tonic Water was invented. It was patented in 1858 in the UK by Erasmus Bond as a mix for alcoholic drinks. By 1872/73, Schweppes was making it.
Quinine was supplanted for a few decades in the mid-1900s by synthetic drugs, until malaria parasites became resistant to them . Now quinine is being used as a treatment again in some parts of the world.
Literature & Lore
It is an urban myth that in Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into Schweppes Toilet Water.
“Gin and tonic returns. Billy Baxter is the first bottler to introduce a quinine soda made with U. S. P. totaquine, the new approved replacement for the real thing. It was midway in the war that the Baxter Company came to the end of their quinine, and as the government had stopped sale of the drug to the bottlers, there was no more available. Baxter began a search for a substitute and found it in totaquine, made from the bark of the cinchona tree, the same bark from which quinine is produced. Totaquine contains a large amount of quinine and proves a first-rate alternate with identical taste.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. August 1947.