Lift Your Spirits with a Brief History of Tonic Water

The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire’ Winston Churchill.



Is there such a thing as too much gin? Apparently not: craft distilleries keep on popping up in the most unlikely corners – from Turin to rural mid-Wales. Gin is now Britain’s favourite spirit (YouGov took the trouble to find out), and everyone’s favourite mixer is surely tonic water.


The history of tonic water begins in 17th century South America when Spanish colonists discovered a treatment for malaria made from the bark of the cinchona tree. The Peruvians would mix the ground bark of the cinchona tree, known as quina, with sweetened water, to offset the bark’s bitter taste, as a tonic against the harsh mountain climate.

Popular belief is that that a Jesuit priest named Barnabe de Cobo was the first person to import quina into Europe around 1631/32, hence it became known as the ‘Jesuit’s powder’.

Quina was first used in Europe to treat malaria in Rome shortly after it arrived from Lima. During the 1600s malaria was endemic to the swamps and marshes surrounding the city and was responsible for the deaths of several popes as well as countless Roman citizens.

In the early 1800s Africa in general, but West Africa in particular, was referred to as the ‘White Man’s Grave’ because of the high mortality rates of European colonists and missionaries. In 1824 the British Government sent 1,567 troops the Gold Coast but within two years of arrival 905 of the soldiers had died of malaria.


Around 1825 British Army officers serving in India devised a means to make their bitter, daily dose of anti malarial tonic more pleasurable. They combined the tonic water with additional sugar, lime and gin, hence the origin of G&T. Bottles of sweetened quinine water were soon commercially available and became known as Indian tonic water. Carbonated tonic water was first produced towards the end of the 1800s.

In the mid 1800s, as colonial empires expanded throughout Africa, India and Asia, the demand for quinine out stripped supply and quinine was as expensive as gold. In desperate need of new and reliable supplies, both the British and the Dutch establish Cinchona plantations of their own. The Dutch proved more adept at cultivating the trees and by the 1930s Dutch plantations in Java supplied 97% of the world’s quinine production.


During World War II, the Japanese occupied Java, creating a need for the Allied nations to secure a new source of quinine. Cinchona trees were planted in Africa and in 1944 two American scientists successfully synthesized quinine in the laboratory.

When tonic water was first produced for medicinal use, it contained a prescription dose of quinine which is far too large for casual drinking. Today, by law, tonic water must contain less than one-tenth of a gram of quinine per litre. However, even in small amounts, quinine is thought to be beneficial in stimulating digestion and easing muscle cramps.

Proost, Cheers, Santé, Chin Chin!