This afternoon when we were supposed to be buying hair conditioner and something for dinner we spent quite a lot of time in a completely different supermarket aisle looking at gin.
I like gin, I really like it very much indeed!
But there are other things I like too, many of them in fact. I like goats, bamboo socks and strong cheeses, and I also like tonic.
Spending some time meandering through the gin section made me think a bit about this long time companion of gin and historic malaria prophylaxis. I realised that the gin connection isn’t the only reason to celebrate, and to write about, tonic. I love to drink it just as it comes over ice, or mix it with lime cordial for a super refreshing summery drink. I would happily drink it all the time if it were not for the ridiculous amount of calories that it contains.
Definitions and history
Just in case anyone is unclear on exactly what tonic water is, apart from a slightly bitter fizzy thing, it is.. a slightly bitter fizzy thing. Tonic is a carbonated drink flavoured with quinine. It might contain other flavouring ingredients, but it doesn’t have to.
Qunine then… is extracted from the bank of the Cinchona tree, has been used to treat malaria for hundreds of years and is still on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines. There might be some malaria resistance to quinine in some parts of the world but it’s still a pretty useful drug. One of the problems with it is that taken orally it tastes absolutely vile.
In 1825, British army officers stationed in India attempted to create a daily drink that could be given to their troops that would both be drinkable and would act as a malaria prophylaxis. By mixing quinine with sugar and water they managed to come up with something that was a bit more palatable than quinine on its own but it was still hardly a taste sensation. To counteract the questionable taste they decided to try mixing it with gin and thus…. not only was tonic water invented but one of the most enduring and popular mixed drinks, the G&T was born.
The tonic water available today tastes a world away from what they were drinking in India 190ish years ago, for a couple of important reasons.
Firstly, the level of quinine used in modern tonic is much lower than it was back then. This is a good thing because in regular large doses quinine itself is quite toxic. Generally there are also some other botanical ingredients thrown in these days, and these can be either natural or artificial, depending on the quality of the tonic.
Oh, and of course it’s carbonated! I don’t know where the carbonation crept into the history, but I do know that in 1825 it wasn’t, and today it is.
Finally, the majority of tonic water you’ll find in the shops today isn’t sweetened with sugar but does have a large amount of high fructose corn syrup added to it. Those that don’t (the expensive ones) are often sweetened with agave syrup.
What to buy
Every chain of supermarkets has their own brand of tonic water, and at this level they all taste pretty much the same.
They have two big problems. The first is that they all seem to lose their carbonation very quickly once they are opened, and the second is that they are all hugely calorific due to that HFCS that is used to sweeten them.
Stepping up in price slightly the two big brands, at least in Europe, are Schwepps and Nordic Mist, and they are in fact both owned by Coca-Cola. There really isn’t much to choose between them. They are virtually identical in price, they have slightly different tastes but Nordic Mist seems to have slightly less carbonation. Strangely there is one other thing that they seem to have in common, they both (in my experience) hold their carbonation much better when bought in bottles than in cans. I have no idea why that might be, but it is.
If you don’t mind and can afford to pay a little more then you can pick up something like Fever Tree (other premium brands of tonic are available ?) and at this point you will realise that when it comes to tonic you really do get what you pay for. ‘Premium’ brands generally have a better flavour balance which means that when you add them to gin they react better and accentuate flavours in the gin rather than overpowering some of them. They are also much lower in calories and just generally better for you since they don’t contain all of that HFCS.
Then there are an increasing number of ‘super premium’ brand out there, I’m not going to pick on one but they will generally tell you that they are made of Peruvian quinine and natural agave syrup, they will also generally have eye watering price tags. Maybe it seems stupid that I am willing to pay for premium gin, but not for the tonic to go with it, but after a certain price point it’s hard to justify the small difference in taste for the massive difference in price.
Of course, you could always try making your own. Although it sounds exotic and tricky, apparently it’s a pretty easy business to make your own tonic water. We are going to give it a try and will get back to you with a report and recipe when we have!