Gin and tonic history – An origin story

June 6, 2017 (Last Updated: August 15, 2020) - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

I recently covered the history of gin and thought that history definitely deserved it’s own space. Today we are going to look at the history of tonic and how the two elements came together to form the classic cocktail. We will wrap up our look at gin and tonic history.

Tonic and quinine – the malaria connection

The history of tonic stems from the staple ingredient, quinine. Quinine is important in history as it is a treatment for malaria. That’s right…. Gin and tonic history has roots based in malaria treatment. In fact, quinine is still listed as a malaria treatment and as an essential medicine by the World Health Organization.

Quinine does show itself in nature and is most efficiently extracted from the Cinchona Tree. They have even been able to reproduce it in a lab, but is not as economically feasible as harvesting it from the the Cinchona Tree.

Barks have been reported to be used in malaria treatment since the 1500-1600.The ingredient we are talking about today, quinine, was not narrowed in on until 1820. Between 1500-1820 is when the original versions of tonic water began appearing. Once they identified the specific ingredient, they made powders of very concentrated levels of quinine.

Mind you, most of the use of this happened where England was colonizing in tropical areas like Africa, South America, and India. These tropical locations are the places that malaria (and mosquitos) is prevalent.

Mixing quinine evolved into tonic water

When you get a bottle of tonic water from the store, it is easy to taste that bit of bitterness in the drink. That is the quinine. But when using it to treat malaria, it would be used at much more concentrated levels. I am sure it tasted like butt.

So, to increase the palatability of the quinine, concoctions were made. Sugars were added. Flavors were added. It was mixed with soda water. Etc. (hold on for the etc). And before you know it, you have a drink that might be much like today’s tonic water. Still, they would have a much higher concentration of quinine than what we would see today in store purchased tonic water.

The first commercially produced tonic water was made in the mid 1800s with Schweppes to follow up in 1871.

Gin and tonic history big bang moment

Now for the Etc. So, we know that quinine on it’s own tastes like butt. We also know that tonic water was evolving during the time periods we have been looking at. Reportedly, the Royal Navy was given a ration of gin. And since they were supposed to be drinking quinine… and likely tonic water at this point, why not add gin? What a great way to wash it down! That strong juniper flavor combined with some bitterness of quinine and sweetness in tonic water. Given Britain’s history with India, this likely happened in that region during the mid to late 1800s. Gin and tonic history may not have an exact big bang moment, but it is surely during this time.

There you have it. That is a glimpse into the gin and tonic history. In my opinion, what a neat combinations of events, when also considering gin history. From the turpentine to the Gin Craze to malaria, the gin and tonic certainly has a storied and interesting past.

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