The Fascinating History of The Gin and Tonic

Rachel VanniTasting Table.jpg
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

It’s no small irony that summer’s best cocktail is associated with a country better known for rain and fog than sunshine. I’m referring to the gin and tonic, a drink that was created during the height of the British Empire. While the mojito or mint julep may be equally refreshing, the gin and tonic reigns supreme because it’s one of the easiest drinks to mix, making it perfect for a lazy summer day. The proportions can be adapted to the drinker’s preferences, but the basic beverage is one part gin, two parts tonic water, and a squeeze of lime in a highball of ice (or a red Solo cup of ice, we don’t judge). While the drink itself is remarkably simple, its history is anything but.

Despite being quintessentially British, both gin and tonic water originated outside the British Isles. Gin is a variation of the Dutch drink Jenever, which is a juniper berry flavored drink that is still the national spirit of both Belgium and the Netherlands. Likewise, tonic water has a broad global history, tying South America, South Asia, and Europe. What separates tonic water from other bubbly waters is the presence of quinine, which is a chemical compound made from the bark of a cinchona plant. The indigenous Quechua people of South America used the bark for various medicinal purposes, and the British discovered it could be used to both treat and prevent malaria.

Brent Hofacker.PNG
Photo by Brent Hofacker

The mosquito-borne disease was a prevalent problem among the growing British population of India, the country then known as the crown jewel of the British Empire. During the 1800s, South America was exporting massive amounts of cinchona bark to Europe for malarial treatment, and it was invaluable to English colonial efforts. Like a lot of medicine, quinine didn’t taste great. British soldiers made it more palatable by mixing it with sugar and water. Tonic water (or Indian tonic water as it was called) was still a little unpleasant by itself, until an enterprising Brit mixed it with the standard gin ration soldiers received.  

Interestingly, all of the basic ingredients of the G+T had some root in medicine. Jenever was originally brewed for treatment of various ailments, while limes were used by the British to treat scurvy. Today there are far more effective malaria treatments than quinine, and scurvy isn’t much of a concern anymore, so telling your boss you’re day drinking at work for “health benefits” might not fly as an excuse. Nonetheless, the classic cocktail was instrumental in keeping the British army healthy. The great flavor is backed by science too; the molecules in the juniper berries and quinine bond to form a distinct compound, which means it tastes better than just the sum of its parts. Plus, quinine causes your average gin and tonic to glow a vibrant blue under a blacklight, making it the only cocktail that does its own party tricks.