When Winston Churchill attributed it with saving “more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire,” he wasn’t referring to a military tactic or peace treaty. Instead, his accolades were reserved for the gin and tonic.

The foundation of traditional tonic water, quinine, is a bitter tasting alkaloid that is derived from the bark of several species of the genus Cinchona. Indigenous to South America, particularly Peru, it’s unclear how cinchona was introduced to Europe. Some credit its introduction to Italian Jesuit Agostino Salumbrino. While in Peru, he observed that cinchona bark was used to treat shivering. In 1931, it is believed he sent it to Rome as a potential treatment for bad air, or mal aria, that plagued Italy. 

In another account, the wife of a Spanish viceroy to Peru, the countess of Chinchon, was said to be cured of a fever when a Peruvian doctor treated it with cinchona bark. Some speculate that she brought it back with her and, in 1742, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the tree "Cinchona" in her honor (although it was misspelled). 

In 1820, two French pharmacologists--Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou--isolated quinine, and later established a factory in Paris for its production. A purified version was also created for usage instead of the bark.  
The demand for cinchona increased as the European empire expanded throughout Africa and Asia. After it was discovered that quinine could also be used preventatively for malaria, the British Medical Department of the Army began using quinine as a prophylaxis in 1848. The British government spent £53,000 importing cinchona bark annually until British geographer Sir Clements Markham introduced it to India in 1861. Cinchona was then distributed throughout the southern regions of the country and British Ceylon. The Dutch also began growing their own cinchona in the 1860s, establishing plantations in Java and throughout southeast Asia. 

Illustration of the first cinchona trees planted in the Nilgiri Hills, India.

Since the lowered mortality rate from malaria enabled Europeans to live in areas where the disease was prevalent, quinine has been seen as a tool of nineteenth century colonialism that was critical for empire expansion throughout Asia and Africa. In The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, Daniel R. Headrick writes, “scientific cinchona production was an imperial technology par excellence. Without it, European colonialism would have been almost impossible in Africa, and much costlier elsewhere in the tropics.”

Quinine’s imperial role shouldn’t be overestimated or detract from the complexity of colonization. It may not have been essential, either. As William Cohen explains, the French were able to expand their empire throughout Africa despite their low usage of quinine. He suggests that superior military tactics--not quinine--were key to their expansion. Although they had high rates of death from malaria, the French had low battlefield fatalities because they employed large numbers of indigenous troops, porters, and laborers. As their empire expanded, quality of life improved, with better communications, regular delivery of food and medical supplies and improved accommodations that lowered malarial rates. For those reasons, Cohen concludes, “The lowering of the death rate must therefore be ascribed to the expansion of the French empire rather than to the achievements of medical science.” 

French campaign contrasting taking quinine with not taking it to encourage its usage.

There were several reasons the French were reluctant to use quinine as a prophylaxis--there was no consensus on what was adequate for dosage or frequency, it had side effects, and also tasted extremely bitter. Cinchona was sometimes mixed with wine to make it more palatable. Quinquinas are apéritif wines containing spices and botanicals including cinchona bark. Like quinine, quinquinas take their name from the traditional Quechuan name for cinchona. Lillet Blanc (originally called Kina Lillet) may be one of the best known quinquinas--it can be consumed on its own, or the way invented by Bond--James Bond--as a Vesper, a martini that substitutes Kina Lillet for vermouth, and he can explain the rest:

It may not have the same ring to it as quinine and wine, but the gin and tonic, Britain’s solution to cinchona’s bitterness is probably much more famous. To make it more toothsome, British colonials began making a tonic, mixing their prophylactic quinine with sugary water and then combining it with gin.

The first commercial tonic water was sold by British businessman Erasmus Bond in 1858. Johann Schweppe, a Swiss scientist, followed in 1870 with Indian Tonic Water. By law, tonic water may not contain more than one-tenth of a gram of quinine per liter. The majority of commercially produced tonic waters use chemically-produced quinine that results in a clear beverage; ones made from scratch using cinchona create a drink that is reddish brown like the tree’s bark.

Tonic water has had an epic journey around the world, and has evolved from an elixir to a bar mixer--here’s how to make it:

Quinine Syrup
(by Toby Cecchini via The New York Times)

4 cups water
¼ cup (1 ounce/20 grams) cinchona bark, powdered (a coffee grinder does this well)
3-4 cups rich simple syrup (by volume, two parts sugar to one of boiling water, stirred to dissolve)
¼ cup citric acid, also known as lemon salt
3 limes, only the peeled zests
3 lemons, only the peeled zests
2 sour or Sevilla oranges, only the peeled zests (or peel of 1 grapefruit or pomelo)
1 cup chopped lemongrass (3-4 stalks)
9 whole allspice berries
6 whole cardamom pods
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon lavender

Combine all the ingredients except the simple syrup in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer on low, covered for 30 minutes.

Allow the mixture to cool, then refrigerate it for two days. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth and discard the non-liquids. Return the liquid portion to the refrigerator--after 1-2 days, there will be a small amount of sludge that settles to the bottom. Pour the liquid out, leaving the muddy sediment behind--there will be about 3 cups. Mix this with an equal amount of simple syrup and store in a clean, tightly sealed jar.

Mix the quinine syrup with an equal amount of sparkling water, add gin, and garnish.

*Creative liberty can be taken in making tonic to pair it with the type of botanical in the gin used--more or less of a citrus, variation of a spice--quantities can be tweaked, substituted, or omitted but the quantity of cinchona cannot, as larger amounts can cause illness.

**Want to do more than simply sip a G&T? Here’s how to test it for fluorescence.


Image Credits: First three via Wellcome Library, London, remainder by author.