In 1825, British soldiers stationed in India were prone to malaria, a merciless disease transmitted by mosquitoes.
As quinine was known to be a preventive measure against the disease, the soldiers were encouraged to take a daily dose of Peruvian quinine extract, which soon after evolved into the ubiquitous tonic water we now mix with our gin to create the traditional Gin and Tonic. But the quinine of yore wasn’t the tonic water of today, especially the many products that use High Fructose Corn Syrup as the sweetener. If you are a devotee of the Gin and Tonic, you owe it to yourself to seek out the many non-HFCS sweetened tonics on the market.
Quinine occurs naturally in the bark of a species of tree called the Cinchona, and the medicinal benefits of this bark had been discovered in Peru and Bolivia by an indigenous group called the Quechua. Jesuit monks later took the knowledge to Europe, and eventually it was prescribed to those same malaria-prone British soldiers. Apparently, it was like taking a slug of the bitterest bitters, and not well-liked. To make it more drinkable, her Majesty’s finest mixed it with soda water, sugar, and that most British of all spirits: gin. A little bit of sugar – and gin – helped the medicine go down, and a primitive tonic and gin – as the gin was added to the tonic water and not the other way around — was born.
Today the quinine levels in tonic water are minute, and in some cases have been replaced by one of several synthetic equivalents. It’s hardly enough to prevent that bout of malaria, but originally the drink did live up to its name – it was a tonic. These days, though, it’s more likely to give you heart and liver disease, diabetes, and make you obese, amongst other things due to the high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten it.
Even though there has been much made of HFCS in recent years, we tend not to think about tonic water in the same category as sodas and other sweets where HFCS is so heavily relied upon. HFCS is a cheap sweetener made from corn, and has been around since the late 1950s. It’s been used increasingly in foods and drinks since the 1970s, especially in the USA, and is now estimated to be in 80% of the nation’s processed foods, even staples like bread.
Since it was introduced, the average American has gone from eating zero HFCS to an estimated 60 pounds a year. Too much of anything, including sugar, isn’t good for you, but sugar produces glucose, which the human body processes far easier than it processes fructose, let alone a syrup that is high in fructose.
So how does this affect your average gin and tonic? Well, all you have to do is read the labels. All the major tonic producers – Schweppes, Canada Dry and most supermarket own-brand tonics – use HFCS. It’s considerably cheaper than sugar, which is one reason those tonics are cheaper than healthier options.
Likewise, HFCS adds a syrupy, cloying quality to the tonic in one’s G and T, thus competing with the flavor of the gin rather than highlighting it. In Britain, the home turf of the Gin and Tonic, Schweppes tonic water uses regular sugar, not corn syrup as its sweetener. And, to distinguish itself from its American cousin, it is known as “Indian Tonic Water.” Here in the States, we don’t have Indian Tonic Water, but various brands –like Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Fentimans – have replaced the HFCS, as well as its unhealthy aftereffects, with more natural sweeteners.
Fentimans uses an organic grain base plus quinine bark and lemon grass, as well as cane sugar for sweetening. It also comes cleverly bottled in 4 ounce pours, which is just the right measure for a proper G & T.
Q Tonic uses organic agave, as well as quinine from the Peruvian Andes. In its natural form, Peruvian quinine is thought to improve energy and health. A nice side effect is that, according to Q, their tonic water has 60% fewer calories than HFCS-based tonics have.
Fever-Tree also uses quinine, in their case from a plantation of trees on the Rwanda/Congo border. In fact quinine is how the company got its name – the local name for that cinchona tree translated as ‘the fever tree.’ The company also uses natural cane sugar to sweeten their tonics, while other ingredients include lemon thyme, and rosemary. And not a hint of high fructose corn syrup.
Corn syrup health issues aside, tonic water made the old-fashioned way – with a more balanced, “natural” sugar ratio – simply makes one’s drink taste better. Once meant to mask the bitterness of quinine, modern tonic water in artisan hands highlights what is best about the classic Gin and Tonic – its crisp, refreshing quality, as well as the balance between the gin’s botanicals and the bittersweet character of the tonic water.