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The History of Tonic

The history of tonic water is fascinating, it helped build the British Empire and is one half of our favourite drink, a gin and tonic.

Tonic, noun

Pronunciation: /ˈtɒn.ɪk/

  1. A medicine consumed to improve one’s health and wellbeing or to lift one’s spirits.

  2. An abbreviation term for tonic water, /ˈtɒn.ɪk/ /ˈwɔːtə(r)/; a carbonated beverage flavoured with quinine. A damn fine mixer, best served with gin.



Tonic water is a tart, bitter-tasting drink ,thanks to its key ingredient - quinine. Quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree.


Quinine has long been lauded for its ability to cool fevers and ease the symptoms of malaria, with accounts suggesting that the Incas used cinchona bark as a medicine and introduced it to Spanish explorers. Its effectiveness at counteracting malaria made it a vital tool for British officers stationed in India.

By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen - List of Koehler Images, Public Domain,

Although quinine had been ingested for centuries without much complaining about its flavour (the harsh bitter taste seemed an acceptable alternative to contracting malaria), the Brits decided it had to be made more palatable, preferably, by adding booze. So they used gin. This had the benefit of causing slight inebriation but the harsh quinine taste remained. For good measure (and the sake of their tastebuds), they realised that by combining the quinine powder with sugar and water, then adding the gin, they’d have something rather delicious and an enjoyable way to take their medicine.

So tasty was gin and tonic water that it took on a life of its own, being sold as a method of intoxication rather than a medicine. Unfortunately, the growing demand for quinine was greater than Peru’s capacity to supply it. Prices soon skyrocketed with cinchona bark powder becoming more expensive than gold.

The British Raj popularised drinking gin and tonic

Despite their inability to meet demand Peru prohibited the exporting of Cinchona seeds in order to keep the lucrative economic benefits of being the sole producer. Even with this in mind, cinchona farming was frequently wasteful and inefficient with more trees harvested than planted and a serious danger that the plant may even go extinct.

Not to be denied a fine G&T (or a chance to make some money) many attempts were made to smuggle viable seeds out of Peru by colonial powers. Ultimately, Charles Ledger, a British businessman who managed numerous alpaca farms in Peru, was able to smuggle seeds to London with the assistance of his manservant Manuel Incra Manami whom, as a young man, Ledger had saved from drowning.

The Dutch government bought the seeds and was able to establish successful cinchona farms in both their african colonies and, in particular, in Java (now known as Indonesia). The Indonesian farms, especially, were a roaring success. By 1900 at least 60% of the world's quinine came from Java and some estimates put this as high as 95%.

Ledger was not recognised for his role in saving the gin and tonic until he was in his late 70's when the Dutch government agreed to pay him a stipend of £100 a year, reflecting his services to the nation. The commercial variety of the cinchona tree cinchona Ledgeriana is also named in his honour. Sadly, for his efforts, Manuel Incra Manami was beaten to death by the Peruvian government as punishment. A sad footnote in the history of the gin and tonic.

Selection of Tonic Waters

Life continued swimmingly for tonic water until the Second World War. Naval battles that threatened shipping plus widespread fighting in areas that produced cinchona combined to seriously limit the world's supply of quinine. Worse, many of the conflicts of the war took place in areas that contained malarial mosquitoes.

To solve the issue, Allied scientists established a project to develop a synthetic source of quinine. The end result was sweeter and less flavoursome than real quinine but it had the desired anti-malarial properties and so worked as a substitute in this time of crisis. It was also much cheaper than naturally produced quinine so, sadly, many major tonic producers continued to use the synthetic quinine indefinitely.

Enter Fever-Tree; with a boom in craft spirits, and gin in particular, Fever-Tree wanted to produce a tonic that matched the quality, innovation and flavour of the best gin producers. To do so, they went back to basics, using only premium natural ingredients and cinchona sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The end result was a tonic so much better than their rivals that it helped fuel the second gin rennaissance and gave rise to an emerging market for premium tonic waters and mixers.

Gin Festival now sells a range of premium tonics and mixers. Check them out on our tonic page.

The History of Tonic



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