For well over a century, the gin & tonic has reigned as one of the most popular cocktails in the world. A 2016 study by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association found that in Britain alone, gin sales comprised 40 million bottles a year, or enough to create 1.12 billion G&Ts annually.
The enduring fame of the drink may be surprising when considering its history. As legend has it, the drink was created to help British soldiers and officials to consume the bitter antimalarial compound quinine during the empire’s occupation of the Indian subcontinent. The common story is that that British would mix their daily quinine supplement with sugar and water to make it more palatable, thus creating what the Schweppes company would eventually label “Indian Tonic Water.” Provided a daily ration of gin, these amateur mixologists would add a measure of liquor to the concoction, because gin makes everything better.
However, quinine and the bark of the cinchona plant from which it’s primarily derived had been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, notably by indigenous Peruvians. As Kal Raustiala writes in Slate, “Before the discovery of the cinchona tree, European malaria remedies included throwing the patient head-first into a bush in the hope he would get out quickly enough to leave his fever behind.”
In 1846, French producers had also begun to capitalize on this antimalarial trend, with chemist and wine merchant Joseph Dubonnet creating a “tonic wine” aperitif that blended fortified red wine with quinine, herbs and spices. Similar to British tales of the gin & tonic’s origin, Dubonnet’s drink was said to have originated in an attempt to entice members of the French Foreign Legion to take their medicine.
The more likely truth is that the creation of quinine beverages simply came about organically over a longer period of time, owing to the recurring theme of humanity steeping medicinal ingredients in booze to market and use as tonics.
So, why does gin & tonic combination continue to work today? Medicinal motives aside, the mixture mirrors one of the foundational flavor balances cocktail mixing, one found in everything from the Old Fashioned to the Manhattan and Negroni: spirits, sugar and bitters.
“Gin and bitters” had already gained favor as a cocktail of choice, dating to the 18th century. “The bitters part consisted of recipes containing ingredients such as gentian, calamus, angelica, ginger, Bitter Orange and sometimes cinchona bark,” write Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt in Just the Tonic: a Natural History of Tonic Water (Kew, 2019). “Recipes for home-made versions and proprietary blends such as Angostura or Stoughton bitters were available, and these latter were advertised as a tonic for ‘all enervating and hot climates’. A pink gin, gin flavoured with some dashes of Angostura bitters, was the preferred drink of naval officers at sea.”
The gin & tonic could simply be a mashup of two existing drinks: gin and bitters, which was generally undiluted, and the gin sling, which was gin diluted with soda water and sugar, but contained no bittering agent. Like many classic cocktails, the G&T took the best parts of two existing drinks and put them together.
Today, tonics have long since been reformulated to be less medicinal (please, for the love of science, don’t expect a G&T to protect you from malaria). But the combination of gin’s bright botanicals with tonic’s tangy, slightly bitter profile, along with a squeeze of lime and carbonation for zest, remain a perfect example of cocktail balance.
A final note, while it’s easy to get lost in the wide world of gins, remember that the tonic comprises the bulk of the drink. If your primary opinion of gin & tonics comes from those made with a soda gun, you owe it to your taste buds to try one with quality tonic. Better yet, since they’re much less expensive than gin, it’s easier to experiment with tonic and find one that best suits your tastes.
Some of our favorite tonics to try
Published: June 26, 2021
Add gin and tonic to highball or Collins glass filled with ice. Squeeze lime wedge into drink and drop hull into glass. Gently stir with straw to mix before drinking.